'New York in the Fifties' was a period when literature, other arts Books flourished

June 21, 1992|By George Grella

NEW YORK IN THE FIFTIES.

Dan Wakefield.

Houghton Mifflin.

355 pages. $24.95.

Every era tends to regard previous eras as works of art, which accounts for both the study of history and the sale of antiques. For a long while, it has been fashionable to dismiss the 1950s as a decade of dull conformity in which, except for the Cold War and McCarthyism, nothing of any interest occurred. To liberals the time seems an intellectual wasteland, to conservatives a sort of golden age -- Ike was in the White House, God was in his heaven, and father knew best: No wonder so few people want to talk about it.

In "New York in the Fifties," however, the journalist and novelist Dan Wakefield remembers a different decade from the one imagined by superficial cultural critics or complacent politicians. suggests that Manhattan was a splendid, magical island in those days, bubbling with creativity in all the arts, just the place for an ambitious young man to launch a literary career. Consciously modeling his book after Malcolm Cowley's "Exile's Return," he goes so far as to compare his subject with Paris, where the great geniuses of Modernism gathered in the 1920s.

Mr. Wakefield first came to the city to attend Columbia University, in a time when students actually hungered for learning, and was fortunate enough to study with such great teachers as the poet Mark Van Doren, the critic Lionel Trilling and the sociologist C. Wright Mills. During and after his college days he formed friendships with dozens of other young writers, including William F. Buckley, James Baldwin, Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne; he also met some of the already established figures of the day, such as Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

Those people may not be Joyce, Hemingway, Pound, Eliot and Fitzgerald, but their names and many others remind us of how literary New York used to be, especially when such periodicals as Commentary, The Nation and The Village Voice printed distinctive and relevant writing, and authors didn't measure their worth by appearances on talk shows.

Mr. Wakefield also pays some attention to the other arts that were thriving in the city. Although he only mentions film, painting and the theater, he gives considerable space to modern jazz, which flourished then before drowning in the foul torrent of rock and roll; he listened to and met a number of the most famous musicians of his time at such clubs as Birdland, the Half Note and the Five Spot, sacred places in the history of the art. In a time when everybody drank too much at legendary bars such as the White Horse Tavern, those jazz musicians, alas were also the vanguard of the drug revolution that would permanently transform the nation.

The author also connects some of the cultural trends and public events of the day to his personal life. Like all the other intellectuals with money from home, for example, he undertook five-day-a-week psychoanalysis, which naturally messed up his mind and his life for years. Despite dwelling among sophisticated people in a notoriously sinful city, he points out the generally innocent sexuality of that era, when even the mention of a diaphragm seemed shocking.

He also shows that in a time reputed to be politically apathetic, a special commitment motivated some extraordinary people he worked with and wrote about -- a Protest minister who fought drug addiction in Harlem, and Dorothy Day and the radical Catholic Worker movement.

The book generally works with great success as memoir, history and reportage; it's organized around some important and almost forgotten ideas and events and some fascinating people. It pleasantly and even touchingly exhibits the author's own honest and generous spirit -- he writes about others with kindness and respect, and about himself with objectivity and good humor; he has been fortunate in his friendships and his friends are fortunate to have his report and regard.

Most important, of course, he captures some of the excitement of reading and writing in a special and unjustly maligned time, which, before the triumph of television, the invasion of the Beatles and the killing of President Kennedy, was perhaps the last truly literary decade of our century.

Dr. Grella teaches English at the University of Rochester.

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