Were the 1950s about Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best? Or were they Emmett Till and Rebel Without a Cause? Were they years of American abundance and democratic triumph? Or was it a time of atomic anxiety and Joseph McCarthy? We often think of the Fifties as a bland and placid decade: an era of conformity and suburban Levittowns, of gray flannel suits for men and domesticity for women. And to some extent, that’s exactly the way it was. But underneath the surface something else was going on. We tend to remember eras with the sepia-toned images of memory, but the Fifties was a complex decade that in many ways planted the seeds of the culture wars we are living with today. In this course, Professor Steinhorn will dive into Fifties politics, music, media, and race relations. We’ll look at the Cold War and its contradictions, and the rise of suburbia and mass consumption. We’ll discuss popular culture and the impact of television, and we’ll see how the Fifties led to the Sixties. There’s a great line from the classic 1954 film The Wild One: when Marlon Brando’s character is asked “Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” he shoots back “Whaddya got?” That, and the more conventional view of the Fifties, will be at the heart of this class.
The Fifties, by David Halberstam
A Dream of Greatness: The American People 1945-1963, by Geoffrey Perrett
The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, by Stephanie Coontz
- TV shows like Happy Days portray the Fifties as a time of innocence, which feeds into nostalgia for what many might consider the simpler days. Were the Fifties actually simpler and more innocent?
- In the 1950s America’s business and political leaders proclaimed ours the freest nation in the world, a land of opportunity and a bulwark against tyranny. Others disagreed. Discuss the apparent contradiction between those who saw America as a beacon of freedom and those who feared the opposite.
- Who is more representative of the Fifties: Pat Boone or Little Richard? What is more representative of the Fifties: suburban communities like Levittown, or the Montgomery bus boycott that Rosa Parks led? If you had to choose one person to epitomize the Fifties, who would that be?
- The 1950s and 1960s seem so profoundly different. Were the Sixties a radical break from the Fifties, or were there sides to the Fifties that led naturally to the Sixties?