Return with us now to those white-bread days of yesteryear, when Mom wore gingham aprons in her spotless kitchen, Buddy and Sis lolled in the den watching I Love Lucy, and Dad spent his Saturdays in a necktie and cardigan waxing the car. Such, at least, is the image of life in the 1950s to those who learn their social history on Nick at Nite. In fact, the decade has long been portrayed as either the Last Golden Era or the American Dark Ages.
Readers of The Fifties, David Halberstam’s voluminous and highly entertaining popular history, may well conclude that it answers to both descriptions. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author (The Best and the Brightest, The Powers That Be) demonstrates that, far from being somnolent, the ’50s were a time of almost dizzying scientific and social change. The decade was also marked by bitter political and racial conflict, not to mention uncertainty, fear, and bravado arising from America’s new role as de facto leader of the West, bulwark against the rising Soviet empire, and keeper of the nuclear arsenal.
Add to all that the contagion of McCarthyism, the Korean War, the impact of near-universal automobile ownership — encouraging the growth of suburbs, and freeing teenagers from their parents’ scrutiny — rock & roll, birth-control pills, and such emblematic figures as Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, Jack Kerouac, Bill Russell, Betty Friedan, Orval Faubus, and Martin Luther King Jr. (who are given thumbnail bios), and only an author of Halberstam’s energy could pull it all into a coherent, readable whole.
For many readers, quibbling with Halberstam’s themes and picking at his blind spots will be part of the fun. It’s easy to portray ’50s sitcoms as WASPy blandness if you ignore The Honeymooners. And how could anybody write about pop culture of the era without mentioning Hank Williams? Or American Bandstand? Mad magazine? Lenny Bruce?
On a more serious note, it all but defies belief that Halberstam does not so much as mention the 1951 trial and 1954 execution of the Rosenbergs. It’s like writing about the ’60s without the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Even so, an engrossing account of a still-fascinating era. B+