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Of Hope, Anxiety and Brylcreem : THE FIFTIES, By David Halberstam (Villard Books: $27.50; 800 pp.)

June 20, 1993|William Hauptman | Hauptman is the author of "Good Rockin' Tonight and Other Stories" and "The Storm Season."

Dividing history into decades is like astrology: it always works, always seems to have a little truth to it. I'm as susceptible to this notion as anyone else. To my recollection, we didn't even start talking about "the '50s" until the early '70s, after we realized we'd just gone through "the '60s." But now everything that happened to me between 1950 and 1960 seems to have been a '50s thing. The flavors of my childhood and adolescence have blended together, leaving, as Walker Percy wrote in "The Moviegoer," " . . . only time itself, like a yard of smooth peanut brittle."

And what was the flavor of the '50s? The beginning was a time of hope. We moved into a new house. Everyone was making money, and everyone liked everyone else. Then television arrived, and with it, a sense of doubt. The first program I watched was "I Was a Communist for the FBI." It was a time of fear, when people did sinister things I could not understand. My mother, who believed every word she read in "Confidential," told me Robert Mitchum had smoked marijuana and gone to a Halloween party dressed as a Fudgesicle.

By the end of the decade, I had seen Elvis and an atomic bomb with my own eyes, read "On the Road," rebelled against my parents and was letting my hair grow. But no matter what I did, I seemed to remain as suffocatingly "normal" as the world around me. This, then was the '50s--a yard of smooth peanut brittle, tasting of hope, anxiety and Brylcreem.

To those of us who lived through the '50s, the mystery is: How could something which has proven to be so interesting have seemed so boring at the time? How could we have missed so much? Because the real causes of the tremendous changes we were going through were only dimly understood by us. This is what gives the '50s its comic atmosphere of paranoia. Something was wrong, but we didn't know what. Just as it took me years to figure out how you could dress yourself like a Fudgesicle, it's taken 20 or 30 years to figure out the '50s and the causes of the nightmares that disturbed our suburban sleep.

Much of the real history of the '50s was secret history. A good example of this is the manufacture and testing of nuclear weapons. During the decade I devoured popular novels, such as Philip Wylie's "Tomorrow," about what nuclear war would be like, should it ever come. Meanwhile, more bombs were being exploded in Nevada than the Soviet Union could have dropped on the United States at that time, and the reactor at Hanford, Wash., was releasing--some now think--more radioactivity than Chernobyl. In a sense, the nuclear war which I dreaded was already happening , and I didn't even realize it.

The good news is that David Halberstam has written a very inclusive history of the '50s, touching all the bases. The bad news is that for all the detail, he fails to bring it to any original conclusion.

Halberstam does have a way of capturing character with the precise moment, the right quote--like Truman, after meeting Robert Oppenheimer, telling Dean Acheson, "Don't you bring that fellow around here again. After all, all he did was make the bomb. I'm the guy who dropped it." Or super-conservative John Wayne at the 1952 Republican convention, shouting to an Eisenhower supporter, "Why don't you get a red flag?"

He writes very perceptively about television, especially "Father Knows Best" and the "Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet." As Halberstam correctly notes. "One reason the American people became nostalgic about the '50s more than 25 years later was not so much that life was better in the '50s (though in some ways it was), but because at the time had it been portrayed so idyllically on television." There is also an interesting section on the auto industry and Harley Earl, chief designer at General Motors, who was known as "the Cellini of Chrome." Earl, who started out customizing cars for Hollywood movie stars, coined the phrase which perfectly summed up Detroit's philosophy--"dynamic obsolescence."

All of this is very good. The trouble is, it has been done before. Whole chapters went by where I learned nothing I had not already known. Halberstam has drawn so freely from other sources--Elia Kazan, Gay Talese, Dan Wakefield, Sloan Wilson and Tom Wolfe, to name only a few--that he seems to have no opinions of his own.

To draw conclusions from the past, one must relate it to the present, and Halberstam almost never does. There are hints, but no red meat. Sometimes he jumps from one person to another to illustrate a point (for example, from Brando to Kinsey--they were both in the vanguard of the sexual revolution) but this is pretty elementary. The chapters have no titles. At times, Halberstam seems to be saying that the affluence of the '50s corroded our moral fiber, but it is never completely clear if he believes this or not.

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