In his introductory chapter to Necessary American Fictions, William Darby says that his intention is to examine fifty bestselling novels (along with filmed versions of some of them) "as evidence of . . . cultural values . . . which they reaffirm and often 'sanctify.'" Because they are expressions of popular culture (mass ideas and feelings) in the 1950s, they are necessary to our full understanding of the decade.
At the beginning Darby lists several beliefs that characterize the period: emotion has primacy over reason; problems "have solutions which the individual can discover"; "the ordinary man can become a hero"; "natural outdoor freedom" is superior to "unnatural indoor confinement." He relates these to such topics as politics, war, love, adolescence, and identity. The 1950s, as he reminds us, are usually thought of as a casual and pacific time, overseen by an avuncular President Eisenhower. Yet such disturbing events as the closing of the war in Korea and the investigations led by Senator Joseph McCarthy occurred then.
In addition, the decade already felt and was beginning to articulate latent anxieties and disquieting apprehension of what would burst forth in the following years. Thus popular novels dealing with both World War Two and Korea—the atomic bomb, heavy military and civilian losses, a victory, and a compromised settlement—anticipate the struggle in Vietnam; Supreme Court decisions in the 1950s set the scene for racial violence; Russia's successes with nuclear weapons and space ventures intensified fear of communism; and the Pill brought on a sexual revolution. These tensions pressed for an outlet.
For his literary examples, Darby draws upon the work of Spillane, Wouk, Michener, Uris, Metalious, James Jones, and other writers. His book is large. Fifty novels seem to me more than enough; fewer, or compression, would have served better. He relies heavily on plot summary, giving us, I mink, more detail and less analysis than we need. Although popular culture's ability to reflect or to teach results most often from magnitude and weight, it is not a full recreation of the details of Mickey Spillane's novels that we could find useful. Rather, it is, as Darby himself remarks, the general thrust, the melodrama and stereotype, the accumulation and force put upon characters and events as they become metaphor and symbol, that reveal their necessary function.
We learn from the book what led Mike Hammer (and other "cynical urban knights") to act out our wish-fulfillments and our fears. Hammer sought truth and punished corruption so as to even the score with bureaucratic incompetents, deceptive women, and communists. From Uris's Battle Cry readers took reassurance about the toughness and readiness of their military. In The Revolt of Mamie Stover they found actions and speeches against the impending civil rights and women's liberation movements. Peyton Place suggested to many teenagers "that being an adult was more exciting and more bitter than they imagined." [End Page 246]
While condensing his literary examples, Darby might have somewhat expanded his account of contextual realities. Regrettably, he set aside two interesting arguments that are potential in his subject—whether bestsellers "reflect, follow or create popular taste" and whether they reveal cultural values in ways high art cannot. Nonetheless, he has brought to our attention the kinds of affirmations and sanctifications that we desire from popular books in order to help us know our times, past and present.