In 1985 the senior members of the baby boom generation turned 40. Many of them are surprised to be still around. The films and songs of the 50’s and 60’s were so full of “disorder and early sorrow” that it was, perhaps, no surprise how many real-life actors and singers, who took the place of soldiers and athletes in the national pantheon, did their best to quit the scene before embarrassing us with their gray hair and boring reminiscences of the good old days: James Dean, Buddy Holly, John Lennon, Elvis Presley.
Some with lives that came to nothing
Some with deeds as best undone
Death came tacitly and took them
Where they never see the sun.
Nineteen eighty-five was inevitably the year of the yuppie, now that “sweet sixteen is turning thirty-one.” More significantly, it was the year of Bloomington, Indiana, which saw the departure of The American Spectator for foreign parts and the return of John Cougar Mellencamp. Mr. Mellencamp symbolized his gesture by helping to organize the FarmAid Concert in the full. He also released an album tribute to the embattled American farmer, Scarecrow, which included a #1 hit, “Small Town.” In the middle of the concerts on his winter tour, Mellencamp made a graceful little pitch on behalf of the family farm, and in Rockford, at least, his performance of “Small Town” seemed to move the adolescent audience with something approaching patriotic fervor.
Like most of his generation, Mellencamp has been through a great deal. Rock music has borne witness to the wholesale rebellion against everything American: drugs, free sex, social protest. Mellencamp himself no longer does drugs—doesn’t even drink, he tells his audience—and his protesting is confined to a defense of Middle American values that might have won a prize in a 4H essay contest. But why or how it all happened (what is sometimes called “the 60’s thing”), neither he nor anyone else can say.
An older generation that survived World War II and the music of Irving Berlin liked to blame it all on “the kids.” Perhaps they were correct, but in looking back on the 1960’s it is hard to recall a single institution that did not betray its ideals and purpose—”the army, the navy, the church, and the stage,” all seemed to fall into the hands of their natural enemies. It was a decade ushered in by a President who entertained a Mafia prostitute in the White House, while inviting the citizenry to bear any burden and pay any price; when the Catholic Church undertook to “ruin the great work of time”; when the armed forces of the United States were reorganized by the creator of the Edsel and sent into combat by bureaucrats who lied to us every night on the evening news.
If “the kids” were really to blame, it is a strange fact that the nation’s leaders had all ripened to maturity in those halcyon years after the Second World War, the golden age of Eisenhower.
Now that we are passing through a second bourgeois reconstruction, an 80’s remake of the 50’s, we are increasingly eager to ponder the significance of the postwar years. Yalta and Potsdam are still being debated by scholars and journalists, with all the grave sincerity of a Jacobite toasting the “King” over the punch bowl, and there are conservatives who look at the 1950’s as the best thing this side of paradise. The children watched Leave It to Beaver on 21-inch-screen television sets in their suburban homes. They were taken to Little League practice and Sunday school and Cub Scouts. They listened to the good, whole some music of Frank Sinatra on the radio, and on Sunday night the family all gathered together to watch the Ed Sullivan Show.
As we have suggested before, the 1950’s were more an experiment than a return fo normalcy. Among the postwar leadership there was a desire to recreate the world of Norman Rockwell in a suburban setting. Planners, journalists, politicians, and textbook writers attempted to reinvent the United States as the land of opportunity and equality, democratic process welded to middle-class values. In many ways it was a noble attempt to crystalize the wholesome sentiments of the American people into institutions. In the end, it was the institutions—not the people—that degenerated. The almost 20 years between the end of the war and the election of Lyndon Johnson were, for most people, a good time to be alive, a period of great promise and hope. But as time went on, suburban America proved to be a Potemkin village that would blow away in the first serious storm.
My father would probably have dated the end of the good life to one Sunday night when Elvis Presley appeared on the Sullivan show. After that it was all downhill-liquor, drugs, sex, and spitting on the flag. Maybe so. But in those glorious years, where were the poets, novelists, and philosophers who spoke out for the old order? Hemingway and Faulkner were still around, to be sure, but they were relics of the 30’s. Of the writers at the top of their form, John O’Hara and perhaps James Gould Cozzens were the best—not much to build a golden age around.
The most symptomatic writers of the 50’s may have been people like Jack Kerouac and Paul Goodman, and neither had much good to say about the era in which they found themselves. Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd, a powerful indictment of bourgeois sterility, conveyed some of the agony experienced by adolescent males growing up in a society where the idea of manhood had become cloudy. Goodman saw teenage gangs as omens of a generation that could not learn to grow up. It is pleasant to remember that Russell Kirk realized the significance of Goodman’s critique and praised the book.
And then there was Kerouac—not just a Beat, but The Beat. If ever there was a man who loved this country, this continent, it was the strange, unhappy Canuck who wrote On the Road. What some readers interpreted as pointless thrill-seeking was really more of a relentless search for the lost American frontier. In one of his last books, Kerouac complained that you never saw anybody whistling on the street anymore: we were all so busy being cool that we had lost the art of enjoying ourselves without affectation.
The people we most remember from the 50’s were revolutionaries like Kerouac, Goodman, and Presley, rather than representatives of the establishment. For all the whole some charm of the bourgeois decade, there was hardly an ancien régime worth overturning, as things turned out. Elvis scandalized our parents on the Sullivan show, but what were they doing letting a man like Ed into their living rooms—a Broadway journalist who reputedly consorted with mobsters? Or listening to singers like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, both of whom have been linked repeatedly to underworld figures? What sort of cynicism was it that could stomach the sappy sentimentalism of a popular music that had one theme and one only-summed up by Cole Porter’s “Let’s Do It.” When the reputedly bisexual Porter wasn’t “doing it” with all and sundry, be was complaining, “I get no kick from cocaine.” Elvis only took drugs, he didn’t sing about them, and he tried, at least, to stay married to one mate-and a woman, at that.
There was a good side to rock ‘n’ roll. At its best, it represented a healthy reaction against the cheap and taste less music of Tin Pan Alley songwriters like Irving Berlin. What Stephen Foster was to the 19th century, Berlin has been to the 20th. But while Foster wrote heartfelt songs of the American experience, songs that fit into a long tradition of British and American music-making, Berlin ground out his slick imitations of blues and rags with the regularity and sincerity of a Hong Kong blue-jean factory.
Ideally, rock music was a return to the tradition of Scottish ballads; it was powerful, dramatic, and dealt directly with the big subjects—love and death. (Isolde, brought back to life, might not have liked the music, but she would have understood the themes.) What else explains the successful transplantation of rock music to Britain? Oh, it’s popular all over the world, but it is only in England and Scotland that they learned to play the real thing and export it back to America. (The other exceptions—Canada and Australia—prove the rule.)
Rock music, at its best, represented a restoration of authenticity. At its worst—perhaps even its average—it deserves every complaint that has ever been made against it. Most of it is as cheap as Irving Berlin and a whole lot nastier. But in the beginning, it overwhelmed all those suburban teenagers who sensed there had to be something more to life than they showed on Father Knows Best. They needed adventure and excitement. Europeans may be content to settle back and enjoy the fruits of civilization, but Americans are still young enough to remember the frontier.
The first generation of suburbanites clearly saw them selves as taking part in the great adventure of taming the wilderness. Unfortunately, they made it too tame. Dad went off to work in his gray flannel suit, while Mom stayed home to cook, clean, and drive the children from one planned activity to another. In these circumstances, a whole lot of unpleasant developments make sense: the feminist movement, the sexual revolution, and the youth rebellion. “Get your kicks on Route 66” was the rock version of On the Road. The rootlessness of the suburbs gave way to restlessness: hitchhiking and pointless road trips became routine remedies for boredom: New York, Fort Lauderdale, Yellow Springs, Ohio—anywhere, in fact—but here and always with the radio turned up full blast. Rock ‘n’ roll was a populist uprising such as this nation had not seen since the great days of William Jennings Bryan. Nothing could stand in its way. Before this onslaught of electric guitar, bass and drums, the Walls of Jericho—so painfully constructed by civics teachers and Sunday school superintendents—came tumbling down.
The musical revolution, like the sterility of American letters and the growing hostility to the cynicism and vulgarity of postwar American life, was a clear sign that something was seriously wrong. The election of John Kennedy, a spoiled rich kid with few qualifications, over a seasoned veteran like Richard Nixon was a desperate gamble made by a people who were longing for heroic challenges. Political idealism is often dangerous, but it is nothing in comparison to the desire to be idealistic. All through the 50’s we had told ourselves in school, in church, and in the newspapers, that the United States was not just a country: it was a commitment to the high ideals of freedom, democracy, and equality. And so in our dissatisfaction with the way we were, we spun the wheel and put almost 200 million people down on the red. Rien ne va plus.
In 1960, the first of the baby boomers were in high school. When Kennedy was shot, they were already in college. Whether his assassination made a difference it was hard to say. By 1963, many Americans had had enough of the phrase-maker with the boyish shock of hair. I remember, the day after, hearing one student tell another, “Too bad they didn’t get Johnson.” In any event, we were unable to endure very long the hollow idealism of the Peace Corps. If the kids really wanted to make the world a better place, as parents and teachers had told them, repeatedly, was their duty, then they would have to do it without the help of an older generation that was willing to sell out its ideals.
Recent studies indicate that the most radical students on campus were not rebelling against conservative parents. On the contrary, their parents tended to be very liberal. The history of SDS is instructive. Originally an offshoot of a cold war liberal organization presided over by éminences grises of the anti-Stalinist left, SDS students grew tired of all the Fabian shilly-shallying. If the U.S. was really as corrupt and decadent as their masters said it was, and if the democratic process was still only a trompe l’oeil set up by capitalists, why not tear it down? In a revolution, what makes socialists preferable to Trotskyists or Trotskyists preferable to Stalinists? Like most popular front groups, SDS was quickly taken over by the most radical elements.
By the mid-60’s, it was clear that what might have started as high-spirited populist reaction on campus had turned into a small-scale civil war between the generations. Demography only partly explains what happened. The baby boomers, it is true, were and are a disproportionate share of the population and would have exerted strong pressures on any society. But if the 50’s restoration had been sound to begin with, the center would have held. What went wrong?
If we had the answers, we could avoid repeating the mistakes of the Eisenhower years. One mistake was the attempt to create an unrealistic set of ideals that did not match the American experience. All the cold war rant about democracy turned out to mean very little, when the Hungarians took us at our word. All those promises to help the oppressed peoples behind the Iron Curtain might have made us feel good at the time, but the hangover had a bitter taste. For all the talk about moral values, the 50’s was an age of moralism, not morality. So long as a man was successful, we really didn’t care what he was like. That Ike had almost left his wife for a younger woman, that Las Vegas was being taken over by organized crime, that most Hollywood stars went through half a dozen marriages didn’t seem to bother either the press or the people.
All the talk about moral degeneracy these days is, at best, disingenuous. Of course, we have learned to tolerate the idea of popular actresses living in sin and bearing illegitimate children, but how much better would they be for going through the motions of a civil marriage every time they got the itch? Who does more to degrade our moral sense, Jessica Lange or Elizabeth Taylor? So long as we teach our children to idolize “show people,” they will grow up worshiping wealth, power, and sex appeal. Hypocrisy may be a necessary evil in any society, but in the l 950’s we turned it into a first principle. Vice was tolerable, so long as it was “not in front of the children.” Unfortunately, the children caught on all too quickly, and the results were the fulfillment of the most terrifying predictions about the last days, when “the children shall rise up against their parents.”
Fifteen years later, we still don’t know who won. In the new orthodoxy of Jerry Rubin, Bob Greene, and Esquire, we can have it all: 50’s affluence and 60’s fun. We even profess a sentimental commitment to the family, so long as it does not interfere with our getting and spending. Our children might have to grow up, like Harlow’s famous rhesus monkeys, with wire mother surrogates named Apple II and Space Invaders. But at the slow rate we’re having children, the baby boomers will continue to dominate the scene, age by age, until the end of the century. One thing I can safely predict: most of us will never grow up. At the age of 40 some are still, like a physician acquaintance of mine, “tuning in” to old Hendrix albums and “dropping out” by mid-afternoon. Others, like a stockbroker friend, are having champagne lunches in restaurants made out of exotic plants and antique packing crates. They’re “forty years old and going on twenty,” as Jerry Lee Lewis sings, and he ought to know.
We are still counting the casualties of the 1960’s-but who ever won a civil war? One thing is clear: the wounds will not be completely healed until the last of the baby boomers is laid to rest in an organic landfill site with nothing but a Bob Dylan album and a thick securities portfolio to leave his only child of a third marriage. Meantime, Mr. Mellencamp is making an effort to come to grips with the real America. It is not an America you can discover in the pages of Forbes or Rolling Stone. It isn’t something concocted by Walt Disney or the editors of Life, but a small town back home in Indiana. Welcome back, John.