A Nostalgic New Year's Look at the '50s
Editor's note: A version of this article first appeared at Forbes.com.
New Year's observances blend recollections of the past, celebrations in the present, and anticipation of the future. For a variety of reasons, I'm feeling nostalgic this year. I've been giving a lot of thought to the decade of my childhood – the 1950s.
In October, my wife and I saw a play in which people weary of the hectic pace of contemporary life could escape to an “authentic” 1950s community where the more relaxed pace of the past had been recreated. In the play, the benefit of relocating to the '50s was a simpler, less stressful life, but it came at a price – enduring racial and sexual prejudice. The problem was that the playwright – a man in his 30s – had zero feel for the era. He simply reproduced various one-dimensional stereotypes about the '50s that he had heard or read.
Why do so many intellectuals disparage the '50s? Bashing “the man in the gray flannel suit” became an intellectual cause celebre. Writers vied to see who could heap the most scorn on the allegedly boring conformity of that receding decade, drawing supercilious caricatures of middle-class men and women of the era as superficial, plastic figures.
My view of the '50s is more benign. I recall it as a happy, safe time – almost a Golden Age in American history. Playwrights might prefer the pathos of the depression-filled '30s or the tragedies of the war-torn '40s as more fruitful backdrops for their stage dramas, but in real life, I'm glad I got to be a kid at a time of relative peace and prosperity.
In the '50s, homes were smaller, cars larger, attire more formal, and the range of consumer products far narrower. A sense of order prevailed. Neighbors watched out for everyone's kids. We left our homes and cars unlocked. Kids behaved in school or were expelled. Most of us toed the line, because we knew that our parents would take the teacher's side. Teachers were respected and principals feared. People accepted responsibility for their actions.
People dressed up more often and generally were more polite. They used less profanity in public. Movies depended on good acting instead of special effects to tell engaging stories, and depictions of sex and violence left the details to one's imagination. If you hurt yourself doing something careless, you never thought of suing the company that made the thing with which you hurt yourself. Most of us went to Sunday school or synagogue every weekend, learning right from wrong and that we are accountable to a higher power.
Were the '50s perfect? Certainly not. Back then, millions of Americans believed that smoking was cool and had not yet shed centuries-old racist attitudes. Few of today's white kids can grasp how blacks were treated. They would find Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' autobiography, “My Grandfather's Son,” illuminating. They should read Cold War historian Paul Kengor's “The Communist” to learn how outrageously Barack Obama's mentor, Frank Marshall Davis, was mistreated because he was black.
An insightful, enjoyable book that captures the 1950s dichotomy between the innocent bliss enjoyed by us white kids and the dark underside of the adult world is Bill Bryson's alternately funny and sobering memoir, “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid.” But even as wrong practices persisted in some quarters back then, we kids were being taught, both in Sunday school – and in TV shows like “Rin Tin Tin” and “The Lone Ranger” – to show respect for all people. Lo and behold, a decade later we began to excise the sick habit of racism from our society.
We can't go back to the '50s. That is both a blessing and a loss. Thankfully, we have corrected some of the most egregious shortcomings of that era. Unfortunately, however, we also have taken backward steps in terms of innocence, safety, order, respect, familial stability, secure property rights, etc.
It was a privilege to grow up in the '50s. This New Year's Eve, I reminisced and listened to the Guy Lombardo records that Pop used to play every December 31. Given the broke and broken state of government and the accompanying venomous friction that permeates our society today, Lombardo's signature New Year's Eve song had an ominous relevance at the dawn of 2013: “Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself – it's later than you think.”
Happy New Year, everyone.
Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and fellow for economic and social policy with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.