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Innocence Abhorred : What's in the Myth of Our National Naivete?

February 22, 1987|JACK SMITH

"Can you imagine any times in history that were innocent?" asks Haig Dulgarian.

He complains that he is always reading or hearing of something that happened 20 or 40 years ago "in more innocent times. . . ."

I have noticed that our pundits often characterize the '50s, whose fads and pastimes are now in nostalgic vogue, as "innocent," along with the '40s, '30s and '20s.

I wonder in what way?

Our species has not been innocent since Eve ate the apple.

What gives us the illusion of a fall from innocence is our technology and our sexual freedom. We have the Bomb and we have the Pill. Having thus opened Pandora's box, we can never be innocent again.

But were we ever?

Having lived through those decades that we now see as innocent, I have my doubts.

What does innocent mean? Does it mean morally upright, free of sin? Or does it mean naive, unknowing?

The '50s do seem to have been an innocent time, in both those senses. We had won the war. We had bought peace. We were going to patrol the world. Our heroes were simple and square. Our women were feminine and virtuous.

Matt Dillon, the marshal in "Gunsmoke," was the symbol of postwar America--tall, strong, righteous, and never mind those mysterious visits upstairs to Kitty's room. He did what he had to do to police his world; in keeping Dodge City clean, he never compromised.

Although a handful of four-letter words had served the armed forces for every lingual need, even our language was innocent. When I came to work at The Times, in 1953, the word rape was taboo in the newspaper. The euphemism was criminal assault , a usage that invalidated that phrase for any other kind of criminal assault.

Abortion , a word that leaps at us today from almost every edition, also was taboo. Abortion was illegal surgery , and the reader had to guess what that meant.

We didn't talk about sex in those days; we just did it.

One sign of fallen innocence today is thought to be the rate of births to unmarried teen-age girls. Actually, the peak year for teen motherhood was 1957. Girls aged 15 to 19 had a birthrate of 96 per 1,000. Every year since then it has dropped. In 1984 (the last year for which census data are available) the rate was 51 per 1,000.

"That was smack in the middle of the Eisenhower era," Richard Cohen wrote recently in the Washington Post, "when every good boy delivered newspapers and no good girl delivered babies. There was prayer in the schools, patriotism in the community and fins on cars. Those were the days."

I suspect that the falling rate may be related to those other symptoms of our lack of innocence--sex education and the freer availability of contraceptives and abortion.

Illicit sex has always been popular. Our literature is saturated with it. Our most fascinating heroines were all adulteresses: Hester Prynne, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Lady Chatterley, and Lady Windermere, who didn't quite make it but meant to.

In the '40s we were caught up in the war, and while there is a lot of sex in wars, there is also a lot of old-fashioned morality. The girls we left behind weren't supposed to sit under the apple tree with anyone else, and mostly they didn't, despite a few thousand Dear John letters. The '40s: That was when the baby boomers came into being. We built homes and families. It was also the decade during which we dropped the bomb on human beings. Perhaps we did it in our innocence.

Maybe the '30s were innocent. In the Depression we lived lives of inescapable frugality; we helped one another; families clung together; except for a few notorious bank robbers, there was little crime in the streets.

Was Franklin Delano Roosevelt innocent? He was sophisticated and subtle. He played chess with the world and conceived Lend-Lease while the nation lagged behind him in innocent isolation. But he was catastrophically innocent with Stalin.

Still, one can hardly imagine Roosevelt selling arms to a fanatical, hostile nation to score some political coup, only to end up holding an empty sack. The Iranian arms deal was innocence of the highest order.

I was hardly old enough in the '20s to engage in serious sin. But I saw innocence avoided every day. My older sister was a flapper; she wore short beaded dresses and danced the Charleston and stayed out late, and for all I know she occasionally took a nip from a flask. My father had a bootlegger. In our innocence we tried to live with Prohibition, thus making gangsterism into an industry and corrupting law enforcement.

The theme songs of the '20s were "Ain't We Got Fun?," "Makin' Whoopee" and "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)."

Parents born in the staid Victorian and Edwardian eras were shocked by the conduct of their daughters. Young women smoked, wore short skirts, rolled their stockings, danced close, drank in public, discarded corsets, stayed out late and necked in cars.

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