The Wild, Raucous Decade of the 'Roaring '50s

GEORGE F. WILL

June 21, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

Washington. -- Narcissism being natural, we who are in our fifties and were formed by the Fifties naturally consider that decade fascinating and resent the cliches of contempt with which it is routinely denigrated.

It was, we are told, mere chrome and conformity, featuring a ''silent generation'' for which Ike was ''the bland leading the bland.''

Such inanities often issue from people who, being products or admirers of the Sixties, can't think clearly about anything.

It is high time to honor the astonishing fecundity of the Fifties, and to acknowledge the decade's signal flaw, the fact that it was pregnant with the Sixties.

Now from David Halberstam comes "The Fifties," a 1958 Buick Roadmaster of a book, large (733 pages) and comfortable for a long trip. It is chock full of fodder for Fifties chauvinists. And it should be required reading in myopic Washington, which believes that politicians make the world hum.

Mr. Halberstam gives politicians their due, and more, but the book gets into high gear with his deft sketches of captains of commerce such as Harley Earl, Detroit's "Cellini of chrome" who loved jets and sharks and gave cars tailfins just as Ike was giving the Interstate Highway System to Americans who suddenly were zTC never far from Ray Kroc's multiplications of the McDonald brothers' San Bernadino hamburger stand.

When Americans drove away from the homes they bought for $7,990 from William Levitt -- he was finishing 36 a day on Long Island -- they could stay at the Holiday Inns that Kemmons Wilson was building, a new room every 15 minutes.

A ''quiet'' decade? More like a roaring one.

The decade's most important sound emanated from Memphis where on July 5, 1954 -- 49 days after the Supreme Court's school desegregation ruling -- a Tupelo, Miss., truck driver partial to black slacks and pink shirts recorded ''That's All Right Mama.''

The night a local disc jockey played the Mississippian's record, the station's switchboard lit up. (Disc jockeys were cultural arbiters for young people who were defining their generation with music heard on cheap transistor radios that circumvented parental control.)

Eager to interview the singer, the disc jockey sent the singer's parents in search of him. Found at the movies, he asked, #F ''Mama, what's happening?'' ''Plenty, son, but it's all good,'' said Gladys Presley.

The most important question the disc jockey asked him was what high school he had attended. The answer told listeners what his music didn't: Elvis was white. The crossover of whites and blacks in pop music -- Bill Haley, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Chuck Berry -- made the radio dial America's most integrated institution.

Shrewd Jackie Gleason understood something else about Elvis of the curled lip and sullen look: ''He's a guitar-playing Marlon Brando.'' Elvis worshiped James Dean, who worshiped Brando. When Elvis met the director of Dean's movie ''Rebel Without a Cause,'' he fell to his knees and recited Dean's lines. He knew them all.

When in 1951 Brando was cast in the movie of Tennessee Williams' ''Streetcar Named Desire,'' the decade was ready for Hugh Heffner's magazine making sex an entertainment choice. When in the movie ''The Wild One'' Brando, leader of a motorcycle pack, was asked by a small-town girl, ''What are you rebelling against?'' he replied, ''Waddya got?'' The silliness of the Sixties was foreshadowed.

Dean's ''Rebel Without A Cause'' (like ''Romeo and Juliet'' presented as a ''West Side Story'') was made because ''juvenile delinquency'' -- how quaint the phrase seems in today's era of crack-dealing, Uzi-toting youth gangs -- was romanticized and sentimentalized as ''protest.'' It was protest not against material privation or tyranny but against the supposed ''sterility'' of American society.

In ''Rebel,'' Dean played himself -- a mumbling, arrested-development adolescent -- to perfection. Feeling mightily sorry for himself as a victim (of insensitive parents), the character he played prefigured the whiny, ''alienated,'' oh-how-vulnerable-I-am, nobody-understands-me pouting that the self-absorbed youth of the Sixties considered a political stance.

Mr. Halberstam's history, although capacious, has a large lacuna. In 1950 the decade's emblematic liberal, Lionel Trilling, wrote that it was a ''plain fact'' that there were no conservative ideas in intellectual circles. Reading Mr. Halberstam, you might think that was still true at the end of a decade during which (Mr. Halberstam does not note) three future Nobel laureates -- Milton Friedman, George Stigler and Friedrich Hayek -- were at the University of Chicago honing ideas that would help lift the century out of its statist rut.

Mr. Halberstam bestows the adjective ''historic'' on Allen Ginsberg's October 13, 1955, reading at Gallery Six, a converted auto repair shop in San Francisco, of his poem ''Howl.'' (''I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness/starving, mystical, naked'' and so on.) But Mr. Halberstam nowhere notes the really historic harbinger of cultural change that began one month later when Bill Buckley published the first issue of National Review. That event is just one more reason for saying that from the Fifties came most of the best of the rest of the century.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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