It was about 1965, in Jimmy Dengate’s “club” in Charleston, when I got my first clue to what the 50’s had been all about. I met an unusual sportswriter. Let us call him Jack, if only because it was his real name. Jack was unusual, because he could write decent prose, knew something about sports, and did not hate athletes—three of the rarest qualities in sports writing and hardly ever encountered in the same person. When Jack learned that I had “literary interests,” he told me about an old friend of his youth, Mickey Spillane, who now lived some two hours up Highway 17 in Murrells Inlet. Spillane had not always been a comic-book and thriller writer, interested only in broads and bullets. As a young man, so Jack claimed, he was a great fan of James Joyce and aspired to literary greatness.
At the time I thought nothing of the story, though years later, living in McClellanville, I several times thought of trying to arrange a meeting with South Carolina’s most famous resident novelist. But it is a curious fact—if it is indeed a fact—that the gruff and violent creator of Mike Hammer was really a disgruntled modernist. Like so much that went on in the 1950’s, a good deal of what we had taken for granted simply was not so.
It was a difficult decade—more like 17 or 18 years, stretching from the conclusion of World War II to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Those of us who were growing up at this time were doomed to undergo a second failed experiment in returning to “normalcy”—the nonword coined by Warren Harding to express his administration’s desire to overturn the economic and political revolution that justified socialist planning and the silencing of dissidence on the grounds of national security.
From the beginning America had been reinventing herself in response to crisis: the Revolution, the War Between the States, massive immigration, World War I, the social and moral revolution of the “Jazz Age,” the Depression, and, most recently, World War II. In a country that was now so diverse—ethnically, geographically, religiously—it was probably inevitable that politicians would learn how to cobble together some set of ideological principles to substitute for an historical reality that was too complex to unify a people. We were thus a “nation dedicated to a proposition,” a country that would go to war to save democracy, the apostle of the Four Freedoms.
The ugly truth is that much of the American elite had embraced the ideology of revolution at least a generation before the War Between the States. What else were Emerson and Thoreau doing, with their childish babblings about Eastern religion and their immoral support for the terrorist John Brown? The revolution really got moving, however, only after World War I, as so many young Americans moved off the farm and out of their native hamlets and embraced the liberating culture of jazz, booze, and swinging. The contempt with which the revolutionaries viewed the old Christian America can be seen in any random page written by the younger writers of the 20’s and 30’s—Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis, Hemingway and Fitzgerald and James Branch Cabell, and Cabell’s biggest booster, Henry Mencken, who should have known better.
That social, moral, and religious revolution had been postponed, it is true, during 15 years of depression and war. What would happen when the war was over? Obviously, the literary, intellectual, and political elite were determined to finish the revolutionary agenda. On the other side, the “conservatives”—for want of a more accurate word to describe a cross-section of liberals and reactionaries—were equally determined to stand in the way. Although the conservatives would temporarily postpone—though not really retard—the progress of the revolution, they would never quit trying. And even before the end of the 1960’s, the 50’s were being seen as a golden age of moral restraint and social decency that should be the model for any future conservative restoration. When television commercials for Ronald Reagan (whose presidency was Act Three of “Return to Normalcy”) proclaimed it was “morning again in America,” the point was that we had returned to a happier time when families gathered together in front of the TV and slurped their Campbell’s Soup, laughing at the hijinks of Red Skelton and Milton Berle, and seeing themselves in the everyday problems of the Cleaver and Anderson households.
To the extent there is a conservative agenda today, it is to return to the 50’s and to recommit our people to a program of vigorous nationalism. That is only one of many reasons why conservatism is doomed. In the mainstream form preached by the neoconservatives to their unwitting dupes in the Republican Party, Americans still have a nationalist duty to impose democracy—by which they mean consumerism and hedonism—around the world. For them—and I include the so-called Catholic neoconservatives—religious faith (like a tumor) comes in two forms. The benign form is a non-judgmental lifestyle choice that enabled those fictional soldiers in World War II movies—you remember, the Protestant, the Jew, and the Catholic—to cooperate to win the war. The malignant form is the kind of exclusive commitment that prevents believing Muslims, Christians, and Jews from intermarrying or even from promoting one another’s religion. When conservatives say they “believe in religion,” they are referring to the 50’s myth of Judeo-Christianity, something in which no actually religious person can believe.
In the more extreme form, ejaculated by nationalist bloggers who describe themselves variously as “paleocon” or “post-paleocon” (it could not be a movement without a slogan), European-Americans have to wake up to reclaim their inheritance and assert European hegemony around the globe. They are more progressive than the neoconservatives, because they tend to hate religion per se as a force that divides Euro-Americans and keeps them weak, but their view of America is the same old tired stereotype of the Eden we lived in before the Kennedys and “Dr.” King entered the garden. The 50’s are inevitably described by jingle-writers as “fabulous,” and they were—but only in the literal sense that they constitute a fable.
The classic statement of the 50’s fable and virtually the only thing worth reading on the subject is Jeffrey Hart’s When the Going Was Good, a book that is entertaining, often brilliant, and utterly wrong. If Professor Hart found the decade of Mailer and Monroe exciting, it was for reasons conservatives should deplore. If we can judge by the books, movies, and music of the period, the time had come to swing again. The hot new novels celebrated sex and violence (Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, Spillane’s I, The Jury), ethnic antagonisms (James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, Philip Roth’s ominous 1959 debut, Goodbye, Columbus), anomie (The Catcher in the Rye, Waiting for Godot, Catch-22), leftist resentment (Death of a Salesman and anything else by Arthur Miller), contempt for the bourgeoisie (all the above, but also On the Road, Howl, and Confessions of a Spent Youth among many others). Yes, there were still decent bourgeois writers, and the Saturday Evening Post, but they were fuddy-duddies, holdovers from another generation.
Far from being a bastion of decency, a model for any future conservative America, the 50’s were years of barely repressed chaos. Why, in the second age of normalcy, did American teenagers turn away from their parents’ commercial pop music—the Dorsey brothers, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day—and embrace the music of hyperemotional anarchy created by Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Richard Penniman, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins? R&B and rock ’n’ roll music were, it is true, less saccharine and stultifying than the elevator music that had dominated the postwar charts, and Jerry Lee and Little Richard were hardly less moral than Mr. Sinatra or Doris Day. (“I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin,” sneered the neurotic pianist Oscar Levant, whose depression used to brighten up The Tonight Show.)
The revolution, throughout the 1950’s, was always bubbling just under the surface. The American political elite had learned one important thing from wrestling with rebels for half a century: It takes a crisis amounting to a threat of extinction to unify a nation. Fortunately, there was such a threat: godless communism and its headquarters in the expanding Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. As Irving Kristol has quipped on more than one occasion, “If communism did not exist, it would have to be invented.” Although George Kennan, the architect of our containment policy, fumed for decades, his prudent strategy for limiting Soviet expansion was turned into a full-blown nationalist ideology.
It was only to be expected. Throughout much of the 20th century, the American people had been subjected to a barrage of ideological slogans: We had a Square Deal, New Deal, Fair Deal, and soon would have a New Frontier and a Great Society. There was the New Freedom and the New Nationalism. We had waged the war to end all wars to save democracy, and Jack Kennedy was promising us a time for greatness. We children of the 50’s went to school to be taught how to “duck and cover”—that is, how to put hands flat over the heads and kneel down under the desk to protect ourselves from a nuclear blast. Since then, our children have been indoctrinated into civil rights, human rights, women’s rights, and children’s rights; the rights of the handicapped—physically, mentally, and morally—and the superiority of all that is alien to American traditions.
The mythical crusades of the 50’s were not simply “the moral equivalent of war”: They might involve real killing and dying. Since the 50’s, we have been fighting to preserve or advance democracy, or guarantee human rights, or share our way of life. In the end, what the President’s speechwriters really mean is that we are justified in killing people who refuse to be like us.
We have been forced to march to this nationalist beat for decades, and it is small wonder if, from time to time, some segment of the American people gets tired of the lies and votes the nationalist rascals out of power, replacing them with a possibly worse set of antinationalist scoundrels. But as the years go by, it is hard to distinguish one side from the other. Mrs. Clinton may hate the United States and everything our country stood for until the last generation; she may believe in world government and loathe any petty attachment to kith and kin that falls short of a commitment to Marxist revolution, but she does not shrink from supporting the Ugly American policies that are making us the most hated nation on the face of the earth.
I do not know if it makes sense any longer even to apply the word conservative to any principles or political movement in the new America of the third millennium, but, assuming for the sake of argument that it does, conservatives have to wise up for a change and quite mooning over a past that never existed. Of course the 50’s were better than today. We could and did leave our cars and houses unlocked; women could and did walk down urban streets unmolested; the bums and lowlifes did know their place; and even the worst music of the time is closer to Mozart than to “Lil Wayne” (who is being hailed as the next 50 Cent). But all of these virtues—moral, social, and aesthetic—were simply the residue of a Christian civilization that has been under constant attack for several centuries and is now more gone than the Old South.
We are not going to save ourselves by invoking religion and patriotism—two bad words used repeatedly in the 1950’s to disguise the fact that the Christian Faith and love of country are about as highly regarded by the American ruling class as the smallpox virus, which has been virtually eradicated. For them, the only question is whether to eliminate them entirely or to preserve a few specimens to study in case of a future outbreak.
Even a revival of the Christian Faith, by itself, might not necessarily cure us of all our ills; and it is utter foolishness to pretend that the reinstallation of the Ten Commandments on courthouse walls would eliminate the judicial tyranny that persecutes Christians. Christianity is, nonetheless, the only real focal point for any conservative movement, and Christianity was the greatest victim of the hypocritical 50’s.
Despite the higher rates of church attendance, the 50’s were scarcely any more Christian than our own decade. A 1952 Gallup Poll revealed that, while 96 percent of Americans said they believed in God, hardly anyone knew Who gave the Sermon on the Mount. It was the time of spiraling divorce rates and, worse, the era of “Judeo-Christianity,” when increasing numbers of Americans either came to view the Church as good business and a social necessity or gravitated toward the cults that promised to reorganize their lives. As President Eisenhower, the most potent symbol of the 50’s, once declared, “Our government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” Apparently not, since Ike’s agricultural secretary, Ezra Taft Benson, ended up as the “Prophet” of the Mormons. And what of the symbol of the decade’s darker side, Mickey Spillane? Despite his name, he was apparently brought up a nominal Protestant, yet he became a Jehovah’s Witness in the early 1950’s. Today, he might have chosen Islam or Scientology.
If we must seek models for the future in the past, let it be the inclusive past of Christendom in its most vigorous times and not the spiritually emaciated decade that added Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking (1952) to the canon of Scripture.