"Some Enchanted Evening"-Tuning in the Amazing Fifties, Switching off the Elusive Decade

Article excerpt

Sandwiched between the dramatic Forties and the traumatic Sixties, the Fifties have suffered, as many things in history (and life) do, from uncomfortable neighborhood. This decade retained an aura of domesticity that poorly compared with the emotional havoc wreaked by the previous years of war or the subsequent disturbances of counterculture and Civil Rights. And yet as we enter the new millennium, the age associated with the suburban dream and baby booming is being re-evaluated as one of the most intriguing periods of twentieth- century American culture. Two provocative works published in the early Nineties, W. T, Lhamon, Jr.'s Deliberate Speed: The Origins of a Cultural Style in the American 1950s, and David Halberstam's The Fifties, have broken the ground for a revival of interest in the period, challenging the over-simplified view of the decade by raising a variety of new issues. To a certain extent, they looked back onto Eric F. Goldman who, in The Crucial Decade: America, 1945--1955, claimed that this period had challenged the average American citizen to face and deal with controversial questions. A second edition, The Crucial Decade--And After: America, 1945-60, expanded the argument to cover the entire Fifties and concluded on an optimistic note that emphasized the speed of the changes by which contemporary American sensibility has been shaped.

Goldman's analyses illustrate how inappropriate were some of the epithets by which the Fifties were lampooned as the "Dismal Decade", the "Years of Neuroses" or more disparagingly the "Age of the Vacuum Tube" (290). (1) A backward glance into the budding Fifties, however, cannot but disclose signs of rampant anxiety, a spiritual malaise fostered by the nightmarish memories of the preceding Thirties and Forties, before complacence, material prosperity and the so-called American way of life prevailed. As the self-appointed champion of Western values in the aftermath of World War II, the United States had first to fight off the ghosts of traumatic experience before achieving the long desired dream of becoming the "Citty upon a Hill". (2) The smoke from Holocaust chimneys had not yet vanished when the decision to use the bomb against Japan spread the suspicion that no participant in the horrors of such war was to come out of it with clean hands. As Norman Mailer would later claim in his controversial essay of the Fifties, "The White Negro," no one alive at the time could possibly estimate "the psychic havoc of the concentration camps and the atom bomb upon the unconscious mind" (303). Could these traumas account for the appearance of a junior Senator from Wisconsin, for the hysteria and the witch-hunting of McCarthyism? Could it legitimate the climate of the Cold War, the distortions and loss of sense of proportions it harbored? Could it finally justify the barricading of conservative America behind its most cherished values and the weaving of its favorite ghosts into everyday life, fostering the fear of another economic collapse and the bankruptcy of the dream?

But which were the dreams of the anointed champion of Western values? Could happiness and peace be chartered by the rules of expanding economy? Hardly, if we are to trust the novels, the poems and the plays of the period, pervaded as they are by so many signs of identity crises and shattered hopes. In the novel, for instance, the scene is engrossingly devoted to the representation of the dilemmas of the self and nowhere is such representation more visible than at the center of the prolific war novels published around the turn of the decade. In the tradition of Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, these novels--among them, Irwin Shaw's The Young Lions (1948), James Jones's From Here to Eternity (1951) or Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny (1951)--foreground the helplessness of the individual against the assaults of the military organization and feature war as a mere foil for the inner conflicts of the bewildered self. …