When the Going was Good!
by Jeffrey Hart.
Crown. 320 pp. $15.95.
One of the problems for the conservative imagination in this country is that it has had no recent experience in power. Liberals have been able to look back on a culture they first changed and then dominated: from the successful attack on the old moral order in the 20’s, to the radicalization of the intellectuals in the 30’s, to the triumph of most of the good causes after that. Conservatives, when they had a good society in mind, have had to think of the Founding Fathers.
Jeffrey Hart is not the first to revalue the 50’s, which he sees as much more than an interlude between World War II and the Great Society. Theodore H. White’s In Search of History—like this book a combination of essay and biography—argued that the 50’s created the modern middle class. Before then, the country was stratified in an almost European way, with most of the people at the bottom of the pyramid. Afterward, everyone made a lot more money; went to college in large and increasing numbers; and consumed goods and services in freight-car lots. The big events, for White, were economic and social change, the epiphenomenon was television.
Jeffrey Hart’s book has something important to add: the 50’s had a culture that mattered. His first theme is that the 50’s had a more lively and interesting general culture than, say, the 30’s. That is not exactly an innocent statement, Hart being concerned to demonstrate that mass middle-class culture was richer, more energetic, and more entertaining than the political moralizing it replaced. The second theme is that the 50’s were transformational, their politics and culture carrying us through the astonishing changes of the war years in not only an orderly but a profoundly interesting way.
Like White, Hart has been helped by his own involvement with the times: he came of age intellectually in the 50’s, absorbed its books, music, and television, and gathered his opinions. In the following decade he was at two different strategic locations: the department of English at Columbia and Republican campaign headquarters as a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon. He now teaches at Dartmouth, and is a senior editor at National Review.
When the Going Was Good! lists a tremendous amount of what was written, played, or watched during the 50’s. It is a find simply as a catalogue of musicals, novels, movies, and television. It reminds us of the thick texture of cultural life then: of Invisible Man and Pal Joey and “I Like Ike” and Ed Sullivan and Dylan Thomas and Lolita and Grace Kelly and Richard Rodgers and the author of the best-known speech of the decade, Richard Nixon. It reminds us that T.S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner and Lionel Trilling and F.R. Leavis were conducting their respective sections of the orchestra. It asserts, often persuasively, that in Hollywood, New York, and Washington, people were a larger size than they are now.
Hart also argues that something began to happen in the 50’s: liberalism began to weaken. The Left in this period had less to say to the new majority created by the war—in fact, it had to contend with the damaging revelations of Igor Gouzenko and Whittaker Chambers, with the cases of Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs. It was from now on to be on the defensive. This comes out not only in the political analysis of Hart’s book but, perhaps even more usefully, in his coverage of literature and criticism. In the 50’s, after all, people still listened to literary critics. Thus a good deal emerges from Hart’s consideration of one of the great books of that or any other decade, Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination. This book is in fact central to Hart’s belief that liberalism declined in a decade which was attracted to newer—and sometimes to older—ideas. To begin with, Hart is intensely concerned with what he describes as the dilemma of Lionel Trilling or, really, of any “progressive” intellectual: the fact that their social ideas were confronted by adversary texts. Since many of them were teachers, they had a considerable problem in handling the evidently retrograde Yeats, Pound, and Faulkner. Liberalism was all reason and optimism—qualities not present in either comedy or tragedy. But, as Hart states the matter:
It was in literature that one could find the required sense of complexity, an expression of the full range of human possibility and human limitation, and a sense of style, intellectual energy, and refinement of thought and perception—everything, in short, that Trilling found lacking in the liberalism of 1950. But the literature he invoked was not that of the standard liberal authors. He went to James, Proust, Wordsworth, the Mark Twain of Huckleberry Finn, Tacitus, and Freud. These were the sources of power; these were the truths and the minds that might resuscitate liberalism if anything could.
Hart does not think, however, that liberalism could have been saved, or that Trilling could maneuver himself out of his dilemma. Sandburg, Steinbeck, and MacLeish could not be mentioned in the same breath with Yeats, Eliot, or Faulkner. Their ideas may have been fine, but they did not make first-rate literature.
It might be added that some liberal ideas, at least according to Trilling, were not fine. In 1948 he wrote a powerful and corrosive essay that ought to be mentioned in any cultural history, “The State of Our Culture: Expostulation and Reply.” In this essay Trilling tells us something that is not in The Liberal Imagination:
Stalinism becomes endemic in the American middle class as soon as that class begins to think; it is a cultural Stalinism, independent of any political belief: the cultural ideas of the ADA will not, I venture to say, be found materially different from those of the PAC.
The PAC stands for the Stalinist Political Action Committee of the CIO. Maybe Trilling’s dilemma was even deeper than Hart states.
The 50’s may have been neo-Victorian, but, we may recall, a lot of strange things happened a hundred years before them too. (I cannot think of more modern—even of more sexually interesting—novels than Jane Eyre and David Copper-field.) In this connection Hart has a really good eye for what is complex and outside the boundaries of theory. One of the most helpful things in the book is the attention he pays to men: there are very good critical-biographical accounts of Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, Richard Nixon, and Jack Kerouac. And then there is the attention he pays to women. Not only to Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, and Brigitte Bar-dot, but to the women of the emerging new class:
The real basis of the racial and sexual changes that are customarily associated with the 1960’s seems to have been prepared during the war years of the 1940’s. World War II had a tremendous impact on the American domestic scene, introducing social and moral changes to a greater extent than any event since the Civil War. Hundreds of thousands of women went to work in the defense plants—Rosie the Riveter—or served in the women’s branches of the armed services, the WACs and the WAVES. For the first time since the 1920’s we witnessed a widespread and aggressive assertion of female sexuality, an assertion, indeed, far more widespread than anything in the 20’s.
The 50’s may have been stable, but they were not passive. As in the Victorian period, there were some deep undercurrents, and sexuality was symbolically present in new ways. This was, after all, the decade of Sinatra and Presley. In fact, Hart dates the sexual revolution not from the publication of The Kinsey Report but from the disappearance of one of the century’s hoariest conventions: the misty dissolve on screen as actor and actress consummate. No more fireworks or waves or trains roaring into tunnels.
Some undercurrents were political. Before 1950, there were real boundaries between the races, sexes, and classes. After 1960 something had clearly happened to these boundaries. Hart does not see any particular effect of the Great Society or of the extended Happy Hour that followed. He thinks it was the transformation of the 50’s that paved the way for the various forms of new equality. He observes that Nixon’s 1968 campaign headquarters was full of ambitious young Jews and Catholics whose fathers would assuredly have voted for Roosevelt. They were there because of accumulated change. He reminds us that Nixon’s first campaign was run with Henry Cabot Lodge, but that his second included a man whose name had been changed from something unpronounceable to Spiro Agnew. Three hundred years were dropped in one election. In short, the 60’s were a decade of some revolution but a great deal of contingency.
There are problems with this book, which is broken up into encapsulations, interchapters, biographies, reminiscences. Some of its materials were previously published as separate pieces and have not been fully woven in. Some of the judgments are either wrong or at odds with mine; I don’t like The Catcher in the Rye or The Old Man and the Sea and I think that Hart overrates them (but perhaps he is thinking not of their value but of their influence). There is too much baseball, which is not that serious a subject and has been better dealt with elsewhere. But so far no one has covered the 50’s better. This is a book that has information and ideas that will be new to most readers, and it is also true, at least as seen by a member of the class of ‘52.