The 50s: A book review by Bob Morris

The 50s: The Story of a Decade
Henry Finder, Editor
Random House (2015)

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
Charles Dickens

For more than 90 years, The New Yorker has earned and deserves its reputation as a truly unique weekly magazine that offers in each issue content of superior quality, be it fiction, non-fiction, or humorous drawings. In recent years, it has provided — in my opinion — brilliant commentaries on subjects and situations beyond the five boroughs that comprise New York City. The first issue of The New Yorker was published on February 21, 1925. It was founded by Harold Ross and his wife, Jane Grant, a New York Times reporter. He edited the magazine until his death in 1951. Ross was succeeded as editor by William Shawn (1951–87), followed by Robert Gottlieb (1987–92) and Tina Brown (1992–98). The current editor of The New Yorker is David Remnick, who succeeded Brown in July 1998.

The 50s: The Story of a Decade is the second in a series of volumes that focus on a specific decade, viewed from a remarkably diverse range of perspectives. This one was edited by Henry Finder, with its material organized within eight Parts: American Scenes, Artists & Entertainers, Shifting Grounds, Far-Flung, Takes (Characters, Computers, and Curious developments), The Critics (Books, Current Cinema, The Theatre, Television, Art and Architecture, and Music), Poetry, and Fiction.

Remnick provides an Introductions to more than 90 pieces, recalling that Ross “liked to pose as anti-intellectual – he famously declared himself unsure whether Moby Dick was ‘the man or the whale.’ Shawn was without any ambivalence toward intellectual ambition.” That said, “the postwar fifties had a certain technological utopianism about them – not unlike our current era – and the magazine was notably alive to this…There are pieces here on the whizbangery of push-button phones, videotape, home freezers, the ‘perceptron simulator,’ data processing, and with real depth, the dawning of the Computer Age.”

Dickens could well have been describing the United States in the 1950s – rather than Paris and London in the late-18th century – when referring to the best and worst of times. There were high hopes and great expectations after the conclusion of the Second World War but also chilling fears evoked by the Cold War that continued until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Consider this incomplete list of major developments in the 1950s: Color TV introduced, car seat belts also introduced, polio vaccine created, DNA discovered, first atomic submarine launched, Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine given to Children in massive trial, Armistice Agreement in 1953 ends Korean War, U.S. Surgeon General’s report indicates that cigarettes cause cancer, Roger Bannister breaks the four-minute mile barrier, U.S. Supreme Court declares segregation unconstitutional, Disneyland opens, Ray Kroc opens his first McDonald’s, Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat on a bus, Elvis appears on The Ed Sullivan Show, Hungarian Revolution erupts and is crushed, Khrushchev denounces Stalin, Suez Canal crisis, T.V. remote control invented, Dr. Seuss publishes The Cat in the Hat, Soviet satellite Sputnik launches The Space Age, American Bobby Fischer becomes youngest chess grandmaster, Chinese Leader Mao Zedong launches the “Great Leap Forward,” LEGO toy bricks introduced, NASA founded, and Castro becomes dictator of Cuba.

These are among the contents of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the range of subjects examined:

“The Perfect Glow” (on Oscar Hammerstein II), Philip Hamburger
“Throw the Little Lady Down the Stairs!” (On John Huston and the making of The Red Badge of Courage), Lillian Ross
“Notes and Comment” (on the case against Senator [Joseph] McCarthy), E.B. White
“Letter from Chicago” (On the Democratic Convention), Richard Rovere
“Letter from San Francisco” (On the Republican Convention), Richard Rovere

“Letter from Paris” (On the Algerian War), Janet Flanner
“Cuban Interlude” (On Cuba and its rebels), Norman Lewis
“Ernest Hemingway,” Lillian Ross
“Jackson Pollock,” Berton Roueché
“Harold Ross,” E.B. White

“Leonard Bernstein,” Robert Rice
“Lorraine Hansberry,” Lillian Ross
“I.B.M.’s New Brain,” John Brooks
“Data Processing Systems,” John Books
“The Perceptron Simulator,” Harding Mason

“The Quiz Show Scandals,” John Updike
“The Vision of the Innocent” (On The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger), S.N. Behrman
“The Book of the Millennium Club” (On Mortimer Adler’s Great Books set), Dwight Macdonald
“Good Tough Stuff ” (On On the Waterfront), John McCarten
“Peeping Funt” (On Candid Camera), Philip Hamburger

“Man with a Manner” (On Glenn Gould at Carnegie Hall), Winthrop Sargent
The Country Husband, John Cheever
The Happiest I’ve Been, John Updike

As Remnick recalls, “even in the fifties, before the arrival of experimentalists like Donald Barthelme and Max Frisch, writers in possession of a real voice [e.g. Capote, Nabokov, Ross, Thurber, Updike, Welty] did not lose it, despite the magazine’s at times persnickety ministrations.” That applied to those who created works of fiction or non-fiction. Since then, the best of two visions – those of Harold Ross and William Shawn — remain evident in each issue. Whatever the nature and extent of your interests may be, The New Yorker ensures that you will “read something that means something.”

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