Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Fifties by David Halberstam

I am nearly finished reading The Fifties by David Halberstam. Kindle told me it would take me 19 hours, and I do believe it has been right. And to think,  Halberstam cut 500 pages to bring it to 718 pages!

<em>The fifties</em>

I was a small child during this time. I remember when I  learned the year was 1959. Year? I had been pleasantly ignorant of the concept of a year, other than birthdays and getting a year older. In 1959 we added Hawaii as a state and my brother was born. What I know about the Fifties I read in a book or seen on PBS or in a movie. It was too recent to be covered in my school text books. Gee, they did not even get to WWII!

Most of the information covered was familiar to me. But it has been interesting to see it all woven together in one overriding narrative.

The book helped to put my personal experience in perspective. For instance, in 1951 the farm fields around my folks house were being turned to post-war, little boxes housing. I grew up with the Rosemont Avenue kids, playing Statues and Red Rover until the street lights came on. Had I been born earlier, I would have had to walk through farm fields to school like my father did. Later we lived not far away from the second Levittown  housing project built in Bucks Co, PA, (1952-58) was meant to house blue collar workers. The downside of the suburban neighborhood was the isolation of women and children that led Betty Friedan to write The Feminine Mystique.

Levitttown, PA

I found a great website about the original, NY Levittown at

Much of what we take for granted today started in the Fifties. Scripted 'real life' television started with the game shows The $64,000 Question and Twenty One. As does the 'fifteen minutes of fame' celebrity. And of course, doing anything for money. The decline of the American automobile started in the fifties when companies took their predominance for granted and began to value profit rather than quality engineering.

The scandalous novel Peyton Place was a real pot-boiler in its day. Now some professors teach the book as a brave expression of freedom, revealing the truth behind the facade. (I have never read it, and don't expect to.)The Writer's Almanac by Garrison Kiellor offered this link today, for Grace Metalious' birthday:

The world of Mad Men was rooted in The Fifties, and I have to think that Matthew Weiner  knows this book very well! In fact, one real life 1957 Chevy ad by the trailblazing Gerry Schnitzer could have been originated by Don Draper! A son is getting ready to leave for the Senior prom, and when he starts for his old jalopy his dad jingles a set of keys. Next to the old clunker is a brand new Chevy convertible! The boy rushes for the keys, backtracks to the jalopy to retrieve the corsage, and picks up his girl. "What a gal! What a night! What a car! The new Chevrolet!" Yes, in this New World our sons get a brand new Chevy. Good-bye jalopies.

I was disturbed by the birth of the CIA and its involvement in Latin America, protecting the interest of United Fruit over the rights of the Guatemalan people. "The national security apparatus in Washington was, in effect, created so America could compete with the Communist world and do so without the unwanted clumsy scrutiny of the Congress and the Press." Yikes! Now the' evil CIA' of the USA television show Burn Notice does not seem so far fetched...

The overarching theme of the Fifties is the change from the Old Order to a New Order. From a time when the Catholic Church was against Cesarean section to the arrival of The Pill; from a time when GM sold a product they could be proud of to a time when the Bottom Line became more important. From a time when women's magazines portrayed the happy housewife cleaning the toilet in heels to a time of sexual liberation and reentry into the work place.

In a book talk on CSPAN  ( ) Halberstam said he hoped that reading the book would help people understand 'why' the 60s. For example he refers to the rise of the VW Beetle, purchased by people who could have afforded a larger car but who 'non-comformists' were making a life style statement, a reaction against the materialism of the times. (The first car my husband and I bought was an orange Super Beetle, sans radio, for about $3,000 in 1973. In our case, it was all we could afford!)

Tonight I will finish the book. About an hours reading more to go...

No comments:

Post a Comment