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American Literary History 12.4 (2000) 771-779

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Sex and the Single Decade

Stephen J. Whitfield

Homosexuality in Cold War America: Resistance and the Crisis of Masculinity By Robert J. Corber. Duke University Press, 1997
Dr. Strangelove's America: Society and Culture in the Atomic Age By Margot A. Henriksen. University of California Press, 1997
Masked Men: Masculinity and the Movies in the Fifties By Steven Cohan. Indiana University Press, 1997
Mad to Be Saved: The Beats, the '50s, and Film By David Sterritt. Southern Illinois University Press, 1998

The 1950s constitute the belle époque, especially for those who happened to have grown up white, male, and straight. No subsequent period has elicited such widespread nostalgia as the decade on which American graffiti ("I Like Ike," I Love Lucy) were inscribed. Once dismissed--especially by militant liberals and by radicals--as homage to catatonia, the era that began with V-J Day and ended on 22 November 1963 has been cast in a sentimental afterglow. For well over a decade, Americans not only cherished stability but made it into a singular achievement; dissidence rarely percolated to the surface. The labor movement was tame, and as likely to be anti-Communist as was the chamber of commerce. As for those stigmatized by race or ethnicity, "the excluded group has the same notion of life and the same aspirations as the excluding group," Lionel Trilling wrote in 1950, when every citizen wanted to join the team (qtd. in Corber 168). In the fall of 1956, both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jack Kerouac voted for Dwight Eisenhower, who left mostly to its own devices an economy which had quickly exceeded pre-Depression levels and offered purchasing power which staggered the world. The inalienable pursuit of happiness was diffused as never before, and tragedy was no more intense than The Beach Boys' definition--when daddy takes your T-bird away.

The other 1950s was scarred by repression. Self-indulgence inspired demands for self-control--if need be, reinforced by the state. (As late as 1959, Gallup pollsters reported that one out of every three Protestants still favored Prohibition.) Social control left little breathing space for the cultivation of difference. In no other decade of the century, before or since, did religion enjoy such uncontested prestige; and for heaven's sake the populace was expected to be locked into an upright position. Sex roles were supposed to be sharply circumscribed: men were men, and women were housewives. Modern feminism began, after all, in the family of the 1950s, with its accentuation of the virtues of domesticity (and the 1960s began with the divorce of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz). The sexual revolution had barely been activated [End Page 771] --much less accepted--in the 1950s, but would soon sweep through the nation so quickly that when Admiral Jeremiah Denton, a future senator from Alabama, returned from a POW camp in Vietnam, his wife had to explain to him what a massage parlor was.

No wonder historians have understood the 1950s as suspended between two polarities. Rigidity would provoke recoil, and the excesses of homogeneity and authority would elicit irrepressible yearnings for pleasure and freedom. Because the exigencies of conformism imposed so much strain, fissures, paradoxes, and subversion would be exposed in the following decade. Retrospective judgments therefore range across a spectrum. For every cultural historian who highlights the peculiar narrowness of the American Way of Life, another detects underground signals which were emitted whenever the pressures of the Cold War became unbearable. The difficulty of sustaining the orderly and commonplace life which that decade exalted now looks hidden in plain view. When prominent custodians of civic virtue included J. Edgar Hoover and Roy Cohn, neither of whom lived in or raised a family akin to the traditional ideal, a decade is ripe for satire, if not for denunciations of hypocrisy, and also for scholarship that explores the social tensions which finally could be neither ignored nor reconciled. Brandishing mostly literary and cinematic evidence, these four books are devoted to the historical problem raised by the 1950s, which...


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