A State of Mind

 

RockwellThe surrender of Japan and the assassination of President Kennedy, bracket an era variously known as Pax Americana, Good Times, the Best Years, Happy Days—the American High.  It was a time of solid families, effective schools, and reliable careers, a time when government and institutions were considered benign, streets were relatively safe, and America held most of the world’s wealth and production.  We lived in those years at the apogee, that weightless moment before an object shot into the sky begins to descend.

Just as personal reminiscence returns most often to adolescence, our collective nostalgia is drawn repeatedly to the mid-twentieth century as the end of American innocence, the last days of a world intact.  Contrary to the countercultural myth that America in the 1950s was a sterile, soulless society, culturally and intellectually empty, it was an introspective era of innovation and creativity, the seedtime of the sixties.  While many writers and artists in the fifties catalyzed the naïve idealism of the next decade, theirs was a more introverted sensibility, lacking the pseudo-spirituality, political posturing, and hedonistic self-indulgence that colored the otherwise genuine issues of the sixties.

The artistic and academic achievements of the fifties had a seriousness of purpose that make the decade look like fifth-century Athens compared to what came after.  The countercultural rebellion of the sixties, presenting naïveté as idealism, narcissism as enlightenment, and elevating form over content in all the arts, conceived of freedom much as a bird might imagine its flight to be easier still in empty space.  Though the counterculture is gone, too simplistic to survive the perspectives of aging, it seeded the cultural and educational catastrophe in which we now live.  Rarely in history has a society had its beliefs about what is natural and proper so disrupted as did America in the sixties. 

In the wake of that collective identity crisis, politics has become increasingly polarized.  As with all living organisms, the ills in social systems are complex, interwoven, and multilayered.  An intelligent approach to the issues requires a balanced mind, applying the values of both left and right while adopting neither as ideological orthodoxy.  But a person’s opinion on one issue will usually foretell his stance on most other issues, and the polarization of parties widens to the point of inaction.  Liberalism, once the bold social conscience resisting the ills of industrialization, has become a pathological crusade to neutralize every conceivable stroke of ill fortune, faulting no one for his own fate and renouncing larger visions for an animal sense of well-­being.  Conservatism, once the repository of a traditional wisdom that knew the connectedness of all things, has grown increasingly reactionary, fundamentalist, and antiscientific, a cynical paranoia that disposes of uncomfortable facts with conspiracy theories and simplistic psychologies.  With the diminishing middle class, the cultural and political polarization becomes material as well.

So our collective nostalgia looks back beyond the great divide of the sixties to a time when government seemed proficient and America’s economy was preeminent.  It was a time before direct contact was replaced by e-mail, texting, Twitter, Facebook, and phone recordings, before vast numbers of youth, with their smartphones, iPods, videogames, and world-weary ignorance, retreated into solipsistic electronic bubbles.  Ironically, it was one of those anonymous, perpetually circulating e-mails that bemoaned a post-sixties world that took “the melody out of music, the romance out of love, the commitment out of marriage, the learning out of education, the civility out of behavior, the pride out of appearance, the refinement out of language, the prudence out of spending, and the dedication out of employment.”

This perspective is reflected in the unprecedented rise of nostalgia in advertising and media over the last three decades.  Critics of this trend argue that no era is really better than any other, that every era has its unhappiness, its romance, its beauty, and its messiness, and that the fifties in particular were darkened not only by the Cold War and McCarthyism (though these had little impact on the daily lives of most Americans ), but by race and gender discrimination (though the same decade launched desegregation and feminism).  The nostalgic “fifties,” however, lay primarily between the end of the Korean War in 1953 and the Kennedy assassination in 1963, between McCarthy’s demise and the war in Vietnam.  And while historians have painted the era as a conformist wasteland of Levittowns and organization men, most people saw themselves and their intimate circles as exempt from a cultural veneer that was in fact a phantom consensus.

Nostalgia can be personal, cultural, or mythic.  Personal nostalgia remembers one’s youth, cultural recalls an era in which one lived, while mythic nostalgia is the dream of some Golden Age in the past, a primordial Eden, or a time like Teddy Roosevelt’s small-town America, the “memory” of which rests on images created by Disneyland or Norman Rockwell.  The three nostalgias differ, yet all have a personal function.  There is always a core truth to the notion that something real and vital has been lost, allowing the cultural forms to color the private.  

Critics who see nostalgia as naïve escapism may themselves harbor a naive faith in the future or in change itself, an extraverted need for novel experience that sees nostalgia as dreadfully inward.  But nostalgia is neither negative nor neurotic.  Essentially therapeutic, it is less an escape from problems than a source of continuity and identity that can enhance our ability to face them.  And if nostalgia filters out the negative, it does so in the same way that one heartfelt truth overshadows the peaks and valleys with the death of someone close.  Though every era has its forms of unrest, what varies is the degree to which they pervade individual lives. 

While living in the richest, most powerful nation on Earth, people are losing their jobs and their homes.  While lives lengthen and medical breakthroughs abound, health costs soar out of reach.  While the curve of innovation and discovery approaches vertical, stagnation threatens the very health of industry, science, and technology.  While superstition and discrimination are in rapid decline in the developed world, we are terrorized by people who would be at home in the twelfth century.  And just when we’ve so refined our habitat that the night-glow of our species is seen from space, nature, it seems, now sounds an alarm.

Beyond immediate ills, we live in a world shrunk by technology, one in which Jefferson’s vision of self-reliant, civic-minded individuals in self-sustaining communities is inevitably compromised.  Yet while we lament the loss of that vision over the last half-century, we are not blind to the breaches and inequalities that lay behind the great rift of the sixties; nor do we long for some literal return.  In truth, the historical debate bears little relevance to our nostalgia, which sees the difference between past and present related less to issues and events than to a personal sense of well-being, of predictable values, common boundaries, and a faith in the bedrock of one’s culture, all of which are presently dead or dying.  More private than public, our longing is for a kind of lost innocence, a sense of being at home in a slower, more intimate world, one still awash in the afterglow of Jefferson’s vision.   

The Best Year

Until the age of eight, I had always lived in the city, in old hotels and second-floor flats.  During the war we had moved around with my father until he was shipped overseas for the invasion of France.  When my mother died in the summer of  ’44, my father was allowed to return, just missing the Battle of the Bulge; and for the next two years we lived with his mother in a small apartment in San Francisco, my father sleeping on a bed in the closet.  In 1946, on my eighth birthday, we left the foggy mists of San Francisco and moved forty miles south to sunny Palo Alto, a small, tree-shaded town spawned in the 1890s by Stanford University.  Downtown Palo Alto was a six-block stretch on University Avenue.  A few blocks north and south held most of its older residences—handsome wooden houses sporting the wide front porches of their era.  I arrived with my father and grandmother on a bright August morning, the old Oldsmobile crunching up the gravel drive of my first real house and yard. 

It was a white two-story house on Lincoln Avenue.  On the empty lot next door were apple trees and chicken coops.  The chickens were gone but feathers still clung to the bleached wood.  Across the street, my friend Pete lived in an old house with a big front porch and a white picket fence.  To go to school we walked half a block and hopped the fence onto the playing field.  On winter mornings, before the first bell, we could slide on the patches of frozen grass.  On May Day, after the parade, the public pool opened.  The crowd of splashing, screaming kids and the picnics in the surrounding park were the first signs of summer—a time for building tree forts in the great oaks, for running in sprinklers, and walking fence rails from yard to yard, plucking peaches from a cranky neighbor’s tree.

At Old Man Bolander’s neighborhood store, a dime would buy Kool-Aid, bubblegum, and a candy bar.  The only television was around the corner and down the block at Freddie Porta’s.  On Thursday nights the Portas let us congregate to watch The Lone Ranger.  It was a time before children’s days were booked solid with adult-supervised sports and lessons in every skill.  We were free to invent our own games, improvise our own toys, and devise our own projects.  There was idle time to explore in depth and reflect on the nature of things.  The toys and games, neither over-technologized nor mass-marketed, left room for creativity and imagination.

There was an aura about the late forties that seems like a vestige of all that was once good about life in this country.  I grew up with the friendly streets, front-porch serenity, and small-town sanity of postwar Palo Alto, poised between rural and suburban, blending the best of both.  I think of steam locomotives, radio serials, and Saturday matinees, of rope swings and the roar of roller skates, of long green grass in vacant lots, and hide-and-seek to the pulse of crickets in summer twilight.  We are all nostalgic for the innocence of childhood, for that warm, parental world where anything seemed possible, but there is a sense in which America in the late forties was that world writ large—the last days of American innocence.

In that idyllic interlude before the Cold War, America enjoyed an explosion of technology and a flood of new-fashioned goods, free for that moment of future complexities and inevitable problems.  With the rest of the world devastated by the war, America stood like a colossus astride the earth, with half the wealth of the world, more than half of the productivity, and nearly two-thirds of the world’s machines.  The average American’s income was fifteen times that of the average foreigner’s and most of the world’s gold still lay in Fort Knox.  We had an abundance of land, food, power, raw materials, industrial plant, monetary reserves, scientific talent, and skilled labor; and for that brief moment, we alone had the Bomb. 

My childhood, which coincided to the year with that short interim, now seems a microcosm, a metaphor for the national temper of the late forties.  The years from eight to twelve, often called the age of reason, might better be called the age of “worldly innocence”—perceiving the world as distinctly other yet still centered on oneself.  The realm of the child, which renders the larger world irrelevant, is an intimate, personal universe, a blend of fantasy and reality.  Rebounding from depression and war, the nostalgic, inward turn of American culture in the late forties captured something of this aura.1  But we cannot escape history.  Innocence fades like fresh morning dew, lost in the heat of the day.  And we can never go home to the American High.

My own awaking was coterminous with that of a nation meeting the inevitable barriers to any naïve notion of a Pax Americana.  One evening the two awakenings touched.  I often joined my father for twilight walks around the block, but only one fragment lingers in memory—a moment on Webster Street when something he was saying suddenly sank in.  The Russians, he explained, had somehow gotten the atom bomb, and the future of those placid, tree-lined streets—perhaps of all life on Earth—was now in question.  It was the fall of ’49.  I was eleven years old.

So perhaps the very best year was 1948.  For the nation, it was the eye in the storm, the calm between postwar readjustments and the nuclear precipice, McCarthyism, and the Korean War.  For me, it was the year I was invited by the family of a friend―whose eight-year-old sister I idolized―to spend a week in Palm Springs at the old Desert Inn.  Basking in the dry desert heat, playing chess poolside over endless chocolate shakes, lazing on the sprawling lawns among palms and citrus, singing along on the hayride with the grammar-school girl of my dreams—it was a euphoric feeling of oceanic freedom and utter wellbeing that I hadn’t known as a child of the war years.  For America, 1948 was just such a time.

My youth paralleled the American High with such uncanny precision that the golden years of grammar school fell precisely between D-Day and the Korean War; and high school lay in that placid interlude of the mid-fifties with the first strains of rock ’n roll and the dawning of the youth culture that would seed the sixties.  Fatherly Eisenhower presided into my college years, while the youthful Kennedy’s New Frontier was backdrop to my postgraduate time of drift and self-discovery.  I learned of his assassination as I was crossing the Bay Bridge to see my future wife.  By 1965, as the nation awakened to Vietnam, I had gained a family.  For me, and for America, the luxury of irresponsibility had ended.

The American High was an historical aberration.  My generation came of age on the crest of a technological wave and a sense of boundless promise akin to the morning of the modern age four centuries before.  But the rest of the world recovered from the war and modernization reached critical mass.  Though still on the leading edge, America could no longer enjoy hegemony apart from the inexorable price.  As the fruits of modernity spread over the planet, the world grew smaller and precariously interdependent while the leverage of the deluded and deranged grew ever larger.  It is doubtful that any nation will ever possess such a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth or dominate the globe as did America at mid-twentieth century.  Like the innocence of youth, the American High recedes into history, a latter-day Atlantis, lost in the sea of time.

Lonely Crowd Redux

But perhaps the dream of global hegemony, like all such tribal conceits, has outlived its day.  In truth, what is lost owes less to global leveling than to the acceleration, fragmentation, and ever-increasing overload of our personal lives.  The attempt to find meaning amid kaleidoscopic flux requires ever more effort.  To reflect beyond the moment, to keep the larger vision in perspective in a world hypersaturated with stimuli, one must swim against a rushing current of conditioned needs, habits, and obligations.  We move through the day in lockstep with the clock, our lives a set of scheduled events, feeling ever in arrears.  The flood of devices and diversions—the effluvia of consumer culture—blurs the focus and saps the intensity requisite to a sense of purpose and direction.  As we lose the levels of difficulty that once conferred limits, we begin to lose contour, coherence, and self-definition.  Even childhood, once a time of play and wonder, is no longer exempt.  Parents impose the flurry of their own inertia onto children’s schedules, while the digital explosion exploits teen compulsions, precluding the kinds of experience that build an aware and rewarding life.

Changes in degree become changes in kind.  For better or worse, we stand on the threshold of profound transformation.  At a finger’s touch, everything is connected, global, instantaneous―a boundless universe of random data in an ever-expanding virtual reality.  The distance between digital illusion and real life grows daily.  Ever new and novel means become ends in themselves, while myriad entertainments fill time once open to discovery, creativity, or silent reflection.  As the media compete for shrinking attention spans, offering the latest, fastest, least demanding stimulation, acceleration sets in; things must be made to seem ever newer and more sensational or the audience will take flight.  

The irony of our feverish connectivity is that we feel cut off―from the primary world, from the distance that gives depth to experience, from something vital, something larger than ourselves.  Studies have shown that expanding internet usage correlates with increased loneliness.  A connection is not a bond.  In the late 1940s there were 2,500 clinical psychologists and fewer than 500 marriage and family therapists in the United States.  By 2010 there were 77,000 clinical psychologists and 50,000 marriage and family therapists, along with nearly a million social workers, life coaches, and mental-health and substance-abuse counselors.  The contradiction between greater opportunities to connect and lack of human contact has only accelerated the general decline in close relationships and evaporating sense of community.2  Thus the mounting nostalgia for the coherence of a slower, more focused time, the last images of which haunt our remembrance of the American High.

“What’s difficult about getting old,” said Paul Newman shortly before his death, is remembering the way things used to be.”  

There were such things as loyalty.  The community hadn’t disintegrated.  The individual had not been deified at the expense of everything around him.  I don’t think that’s just an old codger, you know, wishing for the old days.  Goddam, they were better.  There was a lot of ugliness, but there was a lot more grace.3

Was the past really better or only destined to seem so?  Are grumbling elders inevitable?  One thinks of Plato’s complaints about the “frivolous, reckless, and disrespectful” youth of his day.  Yet the exponential rate of change over the past century may belie any belief in cyclic history.  Perhaps humans will reach the Singularity and live forever; perhaps we will annihilate ourselves within the century.  Or the trade-offs may simply continue, spiraling into eternity: with the clock we lost the natural rhythms, with the telephone, privacy; with the airplane, the romance of distance; with the aggregate benefits of technology, the isolated simplicity that nurtured community. 

Though few would trade the benefits for the losses, we still long for that lost innocence, for an enchanted garden of forgotten dreams.  Yet nostalgia is far more than a wallowing in fruitless regret.  The focus of my forthcoming book, The Best of Times: Reflections on Nostalgia and Postwar America is as much on the temper of nostalgia as on images from the American High—the comforting continuity of long-running radio shows, pulp dreams of alien civilizations on neighboring planets, the endless stretches of land to the West that once compelled the imagination, the heroes and vagabonds of folksong who roamed a simpler world, train whistles that brought the sweet sorrow of distance to small-town nights, and the lazy summers of baseball with its fathers and sons.  The film genres that proliferated during the era combine all three forms of nostalgia.  While Westerns and baseball are facets of our nostalgia for the period, the genres themselves embody a mythic purity, a simplicity beyond even that attributed to the American High.  At the cinematic extreme were romantic fantasies of time travel to the past and dreams of a new Eden in the wake of nuclear Armageddon. 

But science fiction soon degenerated to horrific special effects and futuristic wars, radio was eclipsed by television, baseball surpassed by football, the steam locomotive by diesels and jet travel, space fiction by real spaceflight, Westerns by crime shows, and the depth of folksong by the screaming clatter and colorless monotony of most contemporary music. 

Those who lived the American High can only smile at the social and political stereotypes that partisan historians ascribe to the era.  What we remember most are unintrusive days, the luxury of exhausting a topic, or knowing how most things work.  We long for the linear continuity, relative calm, and pervasive quiet of predigital life, the tangible world of real people and natural places, the simplicity that gave depth to complexity, the boundaries that gave meaning to freedom.  We remember more than the topics of these essays.  We remember a state of mind.

Notes:

1.  The reflective tone in the popular culture of the postwar forties was evident in the high proportion of nostalgic films and Broadway productions, such as The Corn is Green, State Fair, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Centennial Summer, It’s a Wonderful Life, Up in Central Park, Carousel, High Button Shoes, Miss Liberty, Easter Parade, I Remember Mama, So Dear to My Heart, Summer Holiday, Words and Music, Annie Get Your Gun, Three Little Words, Till the Clouds Roll By, and The Yearling.

2.  See Stephen Marche, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” Atlantic, 309 (May 2012): 62, 64, 66-69.  “As society’s material conditions become ever more complex,” wrote sociologist Richard Sennett, “its social relationships become ever more crude.”

3.  Paul Newman, quoted in Newsweek, October 6, 2008, p. 63.

Comments

  1. This looks like a great book. How can I get it?
    Chris

  2. Sherman Hall says:

    Wyn, great! Need more.

  3. Pete Reed says:

    Wonderfull essay. Looking forward to reading your new book.

  4. Carolyn Tett says:

    What’s in store for the next generation who will have never know this simpler time?

  5. A really great read, especially well composed. It saddens me, however that the audience who will most likely read this will be those who long for that ‘lost’ time, not the generation who could benefit from its lessons.

  6. mila spani says:

    May 4,2013.
    Reading Wyn’s prose is a pleasure in itself, but this text expresses in very clear form some complex thoughts that we feel have been in our minds and that we were unable to put into words.
    I hope his new book will be out soon. I know it will give us pleasure and will be thought provoking.

  7. Reid Isaksen says:

    What more can I say? Beautiful writing!!

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