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BOOK REVIEW / HISTORY : Paying Tribute to the Simple Decade That Time Forgot : AS SEEN ON TV by Karal Ann Marling . Harvard University Press: $24.95, 322 pages

November 22, 1994|KAREN STABINER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One of the cardinal rules of lit crit is, never review a book written by someone you know. It's a clear conflict of interest. What they didn't teach us was how to handle a subject with which you're on intimate terms. So I feel the need to make a disclaimer: I was a little kid in the 1950s. I owned a sack dress and a chemise (and I remember the difference), I ate Swanson TV dinners, and the landlady downstairs threatened to throw us out because my sister and I made a daily, rather noisy stampede to the TV set to watch the Mouseketeers.

I find "As Seen on TV" irresistible because it makes sense of the nonsense of my youth; that's part of its attraction, but not all of it. Karal Ann Marling's enthusiasm is refreshing, entertaining and imaginative. Her energy is infectious; the effusiveness gets the better of her from time to time, but hey. This is the '50s. Life is supposed to be simple and simply grand.

A professor of art history and American studies, Marling considers the '50s a visual culture--everything was a work of art, from Mamie Eisenhower's custom shirtwaists, designed by Molly Parnis, to the color of the fried chicken on a Swanson box. The end of World War II collided with new visual technologies, and the result was a decade devoted to excess and innovation (not all of it necessary, but much of it fun).

The book is divided into a handful of sections, each of which addresses major cultural issues of the day, all of them chockablock with the sort of anecdotal detail that makes it hard to put the book down. My only memory of Mamie Eisenhower was of a grandmotherly First Lady. Who knew that she was a clotheshorse? That she, like so many women in this country, was chafing at the bit, ready to give up drab clothing and embrace self-indulgence.

If a wide skirt with yards of cloth in it confirmed that rationing was over, then Eisenhower's skirt would be one of the widest. If a pink formal gown was good, then a pink formal gown festooned with 2,000 hand-sewn pink rhinestones was better.

It seems we might even have seen Eisenhower in one of those controversial sack dresses had her husband not convinced her to cancel the order.

Marling tells us as well about the Disney empire and the importance of big, snazzy cars, about paint-by-number culture, Elvis, and Nixon in Moscow. But it was the chapter on food that got to me. I've often wondered whether I ingested any vitamins at all when I was a kid, given the amount of processing that had gotten between me and anything I ate. If all the preservatives keep working, I ought to live to 100 easily.

*

But Marling makes sense out of what now seems an unhealthy obsession with ease and uniformity--and anyone who considers himself even a semipro foodie should find her research vastly interesting.

I now know why the first TV dinner featured turkey, why Betty Crocker turned out to be a liability once companies started to advertise on television, why we were served--and happily devoured--chicken croquettes shaped to look like baby chicks (it was a staple on the tea menu at Chicago's Marshall Field & Co. department store when I was little, but I had no idea it was part of an aesthetic movement).

If some of this stuff sounds a little wacko, it is, which is part of its charm. Marling's not writing about the rebellious 1960s, the counterculture of the 1970s, or even the rapacious greed of the 1980s. She's chosen a decade that has a rather cartoonish reputation, although I'd argue it's not the only one we can make jokes about; surely that chicken croquette is no more a travesty than the turkeys that vegetarians used to sculpt out of politically correct mashed comestibles.

Still, she manages to make the decade that time forgot come alive. Her prose style can best be described as hell-bent, as she tears from one factoid to another, and what she knows successfully distracts the reader from what she doesn't.

This is a media history, not a social history; we find out about families as consumers of Disney-mania, but not as social units. A quibble. Marling knows a lot about how we looked and what it meant.

I'd like to see her tackle the '60s next.

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