At the Center: American Thought and Culture in the Mid-Twentieth Century
As the 1950s gave way to the 1960s, we are accustomed to think, American life passed from a time of placidity to one of turbulence, from complacency to dissent, from consensus to conflict, and from behavioral conformity to the virtues or vices of individual liberation. Some have celebrated this apparent transformation as a necessary change, which helped undermine oppressive racial and sexual hierarchies, challenge the unearned authority of experts, and question the aura surrounding those holding social and political power. Others, including even some critics of the order of things in the Fifties, lament America's subsequent unraveling, due to the confusion and excess that accompanied the erosion of strong foundations for social stability. Either way-viewing the time as a dark age or proud decade -historians and other observers have generally viewed the 1950s as a period noteworthy for its holism. Things hung together, before they fell apart. Over the past two decades, however, historians have documented the variations and unsettledness of experience, as well as persistent dissent and agitation, that actually marked the 1950s in the United States, despite the apparent unity and strength of the American way of life. They have noted not only the depth of the growing black freedom struggle and hints of women's emancipation underlying the seeming consensus on domesticity but also the presence of sexual rebellion, pacifism, avant-garde aesthetics, and other forms of nonconformity. Moreover, signs of fracture or strain appeared not merely at the margins but in the mainstream of American life. In her re-reading of Fifties women's magazines, for instance, Joanne Meyerowitz has shown how popular ideology operated in different registers, celebrating domesticity at one moment and independent women breaking into new fields of professional and public distinction at another. We have now become accustomed to see mass culture, often believed in that time to homogenize all it touched, as a field in which different actors, different voices, and divergent messages competed for attention. Even without exaggerating the everyday presence of hidden resistance to dominant paradigms, it has become much easier to see the midcentury as a time, like others, in which tensions, inconsistency, and uncertainty prevailed in the ways people made sense of their experience. Nonetheless, this recent sensitivity to the complexity of the 1950s cannot erase entirely that which set that time (stretched in our view to span 1948 to 1963) apart from the times before and after it. What was it exactly? Barriers and hierarchies of race and sex were painfully, often brutally real, prevailing alongside some new rhetoric of inclusion and harmony. The growth of purchasing power in prosperous times-and its unevenness-is well documented. The times witnessed the exercise of US military might in the world at large and the mobilization of civil society that accompanied it; from this in particular followed a fairly widespread sense that silence or stillness characterized public discourse, even though a few howled against it. How do we reconcile the image and reality of the decade as a time of repression with our new knowledge of how much vitality and variousness also coursed through the period? This book proposes that part of the answer lies in recognizing the pre-eminence and pursuit of centered ways of thought and imagination in that time, even as the record of experience stubbornly eluded summation in a whole, ordered existence. Intellectual life and cultural awareness (both popular and elite ) put a premium on grasping consensus, coherence, theoretical foundations, ethical universals, and wholeness in things (whether nations, persons, or bodies of knowledge). In other words, American thought and culture in the mid-twentieth century showed a penchant for making sense of things in rounded terms, focused on durable points of orientation, or centers of gravity. Moreover, this disposition held in fields far from entirely political (i.e., in the uses of power, the limits of opposition, or pressures to complicity). The urge to determine or locate centers, foundations, universals, or orienting norms prevailed across many registers of thought, imagination, and practice. In At the Center, we will explore that mode of perception and reflection as well as the varieties of argument and expression that escaped inclusion within coherent wholes. Our unit of investigation is the long Fifties -a span of time extending beyond the calendric markers of the decade, from 1948 to 1963. The socialist writer and organizer Michael Harrington once called 1948 the last year of the 1930s, in part referring to the Henry Wallace campaign (and its electoral debacle), the failure to repeal Taft Hartley, and the inability to extend social welfare legislation. In the wake of that watershed, American politics tended (despite the rightward lurch of McCarthyism and the survival of a deep conservative current thereafter) toward a decline in pitched battles over the key elements of the New Deal state. Dwight Eisenhower's emblematic remark to his brother-that anyone who aimed to undo Social Security and like protections was making a serious political blunder-signaled that measure of consensus. At the same time, although origins of the Cold War can be dated prior to 1948, that year marked both its sudden crystallization and hardening abroad and its institutionalization in national affairs. The other boundary, the year 1963, identified with events such as the March on Washington, the overthrow of Diem in South Vietnam, and the assassination of John Kennedy, signaled a kind of disturbance that would steadily undermine the assumption that centered perspectives could adequately make sense of things. Although this book rejects the old convention of a sharp, decisive break between Fifties complacency and Sixties disruption, we also disclaim any intention to depict the first as mere prelude to the second. Our mid-century period bore characteristics that justify a historical reconstruction of it as a distinctive time. Moreover, while we cite political events to mark the time, we approach this period in terms neither wholly political nor depoliticized. Apart from explicitly governmental and partisan matters, politics may be found in deep-lying and perhaps unvoiced sensitivities to war, peace, order, conflict, change, security, and freedom-at levels of experience both collective and personal. In this sense, politics burdened, provoked, and haunted nearly all avenues of American thought and culture in the long 1950s.