With all the demonstrations and protests around the country, some observers see a return to the 1960s. In the latest edition of Commentary Magazine in an essay subtitled “The sixties, forever with us,” Joseph Epstein says about the era, “It’s a Rorschach Test: say what you think of the 1960s and you reveal a great deal about yourself.” I thought I would apply a similar test to myself, but I grew up in the 1950s. What, if anything, do my thoughts about the 50s reveal about me?
Much has been written about the 50s. J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, published in 1951, creates an America full of “phonies,” except for young people, like the main character Holden Caulfield, who was authentic and truthful. Salinger’s novel was prophetic: He predicted the culture of wise, honest young and clueless, phony adults–a world view that would become gospel in the succeeding decades. Journalist David Halberstam’s The Fifties saw the decade as another Dark Age in contrast to the colorful and bright decade that followed.
My 50s were not like the decade described by Salinger and Halberstam. Born in 1943, I grew up in Chester, Pennsylvania, and was a part of its small Jewish community. Our house was in the relatively affluent part of town, which was then mostly working class. We lived in a small house with three bedrooms and one bathroom. We owned one car, so my mother had to drive my father to his business (a men’s clothing store) and then pick him up at the end of the day. As I remember, the multi-car family was a rarity in 1950s Chester.
One great thing about our house is that our backyard looked out on a large park . Running through the park was a long, fairly steep, brick road that was terrific for sledding in snowy weather; it was even better when ice was mixed in with the snow. The park was great for sports. Two kids on the block were the sons of the football and basketball coach at the Pennsylvania Military College (PMC), which is now Widener University. The older of the two organized sports for the block. When major league baseball teams began their spring training, we started ours. The same was true of football season. During the winter, we played basketball at a nearby church. I was a fairly good athlete, mostly as a result of what I learned in the park behind my back yard.
I attended Chester High School, which was then half black and half white. During those years, I never saw arguments or fist fights between any white and black students. I did witness (rarely) fights between members of the same race. Whites and blacks got along well; at least it appeared so. The only “segregation” I saw in high school was at the weekly Saturday dances, where I never saw a black student. There were certainly no rules barring blacks from attending; they simply chose not to for some reason. On the other hand, black and white both came to the proms.
My view of the decade is that it was one of peace, prosperity, and security. Our politics were based on the Depression and World War II. Since our parents had lived through the Depression, they were very careful about money, so they were frugal, wary of investing in stocks, and they also expected the government to manage the economy responsibly. Unlike the generations of the 60s and later whose politics were shaped by the Vietnam War, our generation’s politics were shaped by the lessons learned from the Second World War: Have a strong military and be prepared to intervene in conflicts involving your enemy before they get out of control. Never seek to appease. It’s always better to have a short, small war than a large, long one. Hence, both political parties during the 50s were united when it came to foreign policy: They both believed in a strong defense and taking a hard line towards communist regimes around the world. It was later, during the 60s and the subsequent decades, that the Democratic Party became the party of pacifism and protest, in large part because of the Vietnam War. Thus began the political polarization we still have today.
Blacks were one group who certainly did not enjoy the 50s, for they still endured segregation and white violence, but even then there were signs of hope: the Montgomery Bus Boycott and President Eisenhower’s sending federal troops to enforce the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School. These events were the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement that resulted in the passage of the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Bill that officially ended segregation in the 60s. (Eventually, the Civil Rights Movement was influenced by the Black Power movement and that transformed many blacks I knew to be outwardly friendly and apolitical into angry militants. This, like the war, caused the Democrats to move leftward to the point that many appeared to be anti-American, pro-communist.)
My family, like most Jewish families in Chester in the 50s, registered Republican and voted Democratic. They did so because of the Republican machine that controlled Chester and the rest of Delaware County. It was obviously much better to be registered Republican if you wanted the city government to help you get a job or, if you were self-employed, to promote your economic interests.
As I said, in my view President Eisenhower presided over a peaceful, prosperous country. But my family, like most other Jewish families, didn’t think much of him. Why? What they said was that he “doesn’t do anything.” There was the joke about Eisenhower being “the golf pro at the White House.” But part of the reason, I am sure, was that Eisenhower was a Republican. My family, again like most Jewish families, revered the Democrat Adlai Stevenson. They felt so strongly about Adlai because he was not only a liberal intellectual but also had, they believed, a sense of humor, though I don’t remember him saying anything memorably funny. When Jack Kennedy began to be discussed as a presidential candidate, the Jews in Chester were not happy for two reasons: He was a Catholic, which meant the pope would really be running the country, and Kennedy’s father was a pro-Nazi, anti-semite (unfortunately true). I also remember that my mother liked Barry Goldwater because he was half-Jewish, which had to mean that he was a liberal!
Yes, there were repugnant aspects of the 50s, like the drunken demagogue Joe McCarthy’s self-serving witch hunt for communists in the State Department and the Army. He never presented any evidence to support his accusations. But the Congressional investigations were based on evidence. What did the people I grew up with think of all that? Some far left-wing Jews in Chester objected to any investigation into communist attempts to subvert various American institutions. And they strongly believed that those convicted of spying for the Soviet Union, like Alger Hiss and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were innocent victims. But most of the Jews I knew in Chester either had no opinion about it or believed Hiss and the Rosenbergs were guilty and felt ashamed that the Rosenbergs were Jewish.
Although the 50s have been considered to be a cultural wasteland, I never thought so. We had the Philadelphia Orchestra directed by Eugene Ormandy, an orchestra that was considered one of the finest in the world. I wasn’t much of a jazz fan at the time, but many consider the 50s to be the golden age of jazz. Miles Davis recorded his classic album Kind of Blue in the 50s. Some of the greatest movies were made during the 50s. I particularly liked those made by Elia Kazan: On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata, A Face in the Crowd, East of Eden, and America America. In the theater, Kazan directed Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.
In the 50s I loved rock ‘n’roll and singers like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. The 50s saw some of the best and most influential rock musicians: Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Etta James, Ruth Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis. I was never an Elvis fan, though I could see why he appealed to girls. Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald were at their peak in the 50s and recorded their best albums then. Sinatra’s classic albums Songs For Swinging Lovers, A Swinging Affair, and Only The Lonely were recorded in the 50s as were Ella’s great Songbooks. Conventional wisdom is that the 60s produced the best rock music. Today I do listen to Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Randy Newman and Eric Clapton, but not much else from that decade. I also like the Blues, and most of the best blues musicians came up in the 50s.
The 50s were to me the best decade to be alive and growing up. The streets of Chester were for the most part safe. Nobody I knew took drugs. After Korea, there were no wars in the 50s. Yes, there was the threat of nuclear war, but I don’t remember thinking about it much.
A few years ago, a friend’s father showed me a photo of a meeting of the Chester Businessmen’s Association taken in the 1950s. I recognized most of the men, and I was shocked to realize that I was older than the men in the picture. Here were serious grownups in serious suits and ties with serious expressions on their faces. I thought, what goofballs we have become in the succeeding decades. The romanticization of youth created by Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye persists to this day. Just last night, at a local delicatessen I noticed that most of the men, from their 40s to their late 80s(!), were dressed like kids with the ubiquitous blue jeans and sneakers. To be fair, I was dressed like a kid as well. Some would point to this as a sign of progress because wearing the kind of clothes that only kids used to wear is more comfortable than wearing a suit and tie. Maybe it is, but I see it as evidence of a juvenilization of adulthood; if you look like an adolescent, you think like an adolescent. I think that the disappearance of real grownups is a major reason that our culture has been so trivialized and corrupted since the 50’s.
My best friend, with whom I had political differences, often said to me that my distaste for the 60s is a result of his belief that I didn’t (in his words) “get laid” during the age of drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll. That is not quite true: I had two close girlfriends during that time, and I met my wife during the horrible, legendary year of 1968 when both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were murdered and a large contingent of anti-war, pro-North Vietnamese protest marchers provoked what the press called “a police riot” around the site of the Democratic National Convention. I will admit that I probably thought that I wasn’t “getting enough,” but what ordinary male in his twenties doesn’t believe that? Perhaps someone like Mick Jagger thought that he had had enough when he was in his twenties.
Even though I consider the 50s much superior to the 60s and the decades that followed, that doesn’t mean that I was a happy-go-lucky boy. I felt that I was neither good looking enough nor tall enough. I found it very difficult to talk to girls. My family life wasn’t often harmonious. All of that was very upsetting to me; perhaps much of it still is. Despite that, I still consider the 50s a wonderful decade.
So what does my Rorschach Test reveal about me? Growing up in Chester in the 50s is probably the reason I tend to be conservative in my politics. I consider most of the changes that occurred in the 60s to have been destructive of traditional Western values like discipline, restraint, morality, and patriotism. It also says to me that it is a mistake to blame your problems on the particular time when you were young.