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The 1950s, Revisited

How can a more realistic outlook on the 1950s shed light on the times we are living through today? 

It must have been very dull to live in the 1950s. It was a time of black and white TV and gray flannel suit conformity.  On the other hand, the 50s also had its dark side, as explored in contemporary shows such as Mad Men. And so we tend to think of this period after World War Two as a time of deep racism, sexism and hard drinking. It was not a very sophisticated time, and thank goodness we know better nowadays. 

This view of the 1950s is exaggerated and distorted, says Mark Helprin, author ofIn Sunlight and in Shadow

, a novel that explores New York City in the postwar years. 

“I grew up in that exact milieu,” Helprin tells Jeff Schechtman in this week’s Specific Gravity interview. Helprin is referring to Ossining, the Westchester County town where Mad Men‘s Don Draper has a home. Helprin says he knew “zillions of advertising people.” But this was not the world of Mad Men, Helprin insists.

After all, people didn’t dress “like models in a glamour shop.” And while people drank cocktails on the train ride home, not everyone was a raging alcoholic. Life was simply more mannered, and better for it. For one thing, the 1950s represents “perhaps the last time when rules were clear,” Helprin says. People could thereby “navigate their lives” according to these rules and live virtuous lives. 

Some might view this as an overly idealized view. After all what did these “rules” mean if you were a woman?

Hint: it wasn’t really the way it is portrayed on Mad Men. While women in the 1950s hadn’t entered the workforce in as great numbers as today and were also denied the greater levels of equality that we see today, Helprin says that in fact the relations between the sexes were not that different than they are today. 

But what people really tend to get wrong about the 1950s, Helprin says, is the idea that it was boring. What we lack is a “sense about how these people suffered,” Helprin says. After the horrors of the Second World War, “what followed was a reaction to what happened. Everyone had had enough. The whole country wanted to rest.”

What’s the Big Idea?

In the interview below, Helprin challenges the perspective that “people were somehow unenlightened and stupid in the past.” He says we tend to think “we are now so far superior,” and that “people back then just were not enlightened.”

At the same time, Helprin says we also tend to hold an overly romanticized view of the so-called “Greatest Generation,” which Helprin says was simply a “normal generation.” Subsequently, Helprin says, we have had some generations that were indeed “bad generations,” in the sense that they have been too self-indulgent.

So how can a more realistic outlook on the 1950s shed light on the times we are living through today? For one thing, Helprin sees our lives today as defined by irony, which he describes as the cold disdain we have for others’ viewpoints. The 50s, Helprin argues, lacked that deep sense of irony. There was innocence instead. And with that innocence, there was what Helprin sees as a healthier understanding of peoples’ roles in society, and indeed the world. This stands in marked contrast, Helprin says, to the narcissism of today. 

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Image courtesy of Shutterstock


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