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Please, Don't Bring Back the '50s

November 01, 1987|JACK MILES | Miles is The Times' book editor

The Times' review of a new 1950s nostalgia movie speaks of the director's "longing for the past, for the moment in time when everything seemed full of luminous certainty and romantic potential, when youth and idealism seemed quenchless."

No doubt reviewer Michael Wilmington (Calendar, Oct. 14) has accurately characterized the mood of Yugoslav director Jovan Acin's "Hey, Babu Riba," which, as Wilmington points out, recalls innumerable American predecessors in the "American Graffiti" vein. And yet what the reviewer's graceful sentence left me thinking about was the McCarthy Era.

The McCarthy Era? Yes, "Happy Days" and "MASH" fans, the decade you love to remember is the same one in which, as other recent stories in Calendar have reminded us, America was caught in a vise of paranoia and anxiety as the freedoms we had bled to save in Europe seemed to be in peril at home.

Ah, well, you reply, but the McCarthy Era--the blacklisting, the loyalty oaths and all that--really only "happened" to a tiny elite of Hollywood types and leftist intellectuals. McCarthy may have defined their 1950s; he did not define America's 1950s.

No? Well then, how about the Korean War? In 1950, my buddies and I rode our bikes down Cicero Avenue on Chicago's West Side shouting "Truman declared war!" I was 8 at the time. We thought it was pretty exciting. Then they started shipping our older brothers home in boxes. Exactly 54,246 Americans died in the Korean War over a period of three years. (By contrast, 57,702 Americans died in the Vietnam War over a period of 20 years.) The huge loss came with brutal speed, and when Douglas MacArthur, ordered home by Harry S. Truman, gave his "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away" speech, my neighborhood thought those young lives had been wasted. The fall of MacArthur left us full of grief and confusion. "Mac" was our Ollie North, but to the 10th power.

But in spite of all that, you reply, there was a sweetness, an innocence back then. That's what makes "American Graffiti" and its imitators so touching.

Was there? I won't bother to mention the absence of blacks from those films (and, apparently, from the memories of those directors). I will mention the impact in 1957 on a white boy then 15 years old of seeing a black girl barred from her Little Rock school by National Guardsmen with fixed bayonets. It didn't seem sweet. It didn't seem innocent.

My Chicago neighborhood was hit by white flight not long after school integration hit the South. There was deep, real fear on both sides, and there was vicious exploitation of both sides by banking and real estate types who knew no rule beyond "Buy cheap and sell dear." Too many adults I knew hated blacks. Too many trusted nobody. It wasn't a time to remember.

And for that matter, it wasn't a safe time, either, not even among whites. Arthur Fonzarelli is the candy-coated, fairy-tale version of what in the '50s was properly spoken of as the teen crime problem. (I know, "American Graffiti" is set in 1962, but the film and "Happy Days," the TV series derived from it, are clearly not intended to evoke the '60s.) Once, when an Arthur Fonzarelli type in my high school had been offended by one of his classmates, Fonzie's elder brother showed up after school, marched his little brother's opponent behind the garage at gunpoint and pistol-whipped him. Life was so much simpler then.

This was the decade, you tell me, when America seemed invincible, when all things were possible. I tell you that in a neighborhood full of refugees from Eastern Europe, America did not seem invincible in 1956 as the last Freedom Fighter radios fell silent in Hungary. Or in 1957, when the Soviet Union, not the United States, launched the first space satellite. China and Russia were allies, then, remember? And the MiG was faster than the Sabrejet.

I have a few '50s memories of the kind that make movies. I dreamed about being James Dean, or maybe James Dean's bodyguard. I danced myself to sweaty exhaustion on rhythm 'n' blues. But on the whole, I cannot imagine a decade of American history to which I would less like to return.

Why do so many other people--above all, those producers--love the '50s so much? I find a kind of explanation in a Polish writer who is nostalgic about the 1940s. "Yes, the German occupation was beautiful," writes Tadeusz Konwicki. "Beautiful because it was my youth, my one and only youth. There won't be any other." Konwicki is right, but irony saves him: He sets the German occupation--the worst catastrophe in the catastrophic history of his nation--squarely in the middle of his infatuation with himself as a boy. Would that it were so for those who have made such a career of remembering themselves in the American '50s.

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