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Tuesday, March 15, 2022

The Fifties And The Golden Age Of The American Family - Ethos, Principle, And Patriotism

There is perhaps no decade of recent history so maligned by the current crop of social critics than The Fifties, an era described by them as retrograde, misogynistic, homophobic and worst of all, insipid.  The stock in trade of the Fifties was Leave It To Beaver, The Brady Bunch, Ozzie and Harriet; tomato aspic, cigarettes, religious homilies, and political conservatism.  The suburbs in which most families lived or aspired to were considered cultural wastelands, homogeneous zones of smugness and faux propriety.  Husbands worked at deadening jobs while wives cooked, cleaned, and took care of the children, neither one satisfied or happy.

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Of course this censorious look at the Fifties, like any revisionist history, misses the point – the central and fundamental values of the era.  For all its supposed failings, the Fifties for many Americans was a time of family, faith, respect, and patriotism.  Families of the Fifties had no fewer spiteful divisions than any other decade, but nevertheless tried to remain intact.  There was a certain value to personal commitment.  Marriage, both legally binding and spiritually sanctified was more than a simple arrangement.  

Disregarding its principles, its ethos, and its institutional rules meant a more general disregard for society, the commonweal, and the nation.  Marriage was at once Biblical in spiritual orientation and meaning, and at the heart of both kingship and peasantry.  Procreation was the least of it.  In the prosperity of the post-war period when no additional hands were needed on the farm to make ends meet, large families were unnecessary.   

Heterosexual families were not only procreative, they were models for sexual behavior in an era which never doubted the essentiality of male-female relationships.  Boys were brought up to be like their fathers and girls like their mothers – not housewives or corporate accountants, but men and women.   The ‘conservatism’ of the Fifties extended far beyond the political tide and meant a respect for what had always been permanent features of social life.  The family – as it always had been since the first human settlements – was respected if not revered. 

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From the perspective of  some today, such traditional views of marriage seem hopelessly outdated and irrelevant.  Marriage, like the gender spectrum, is fluid, advocates say.  It can be formed and dissolved without consequence or second thought.  Subsequent marriages can be between anyone of a variety of sexual orientation and preference; and in fact young people are taught to be circumspect about heterosexual marriage when so many other appealing options exist and are permitted.  

While this view is consistent with an overall progressive concept of society – alternative, diverse, and inclusive – it adds to the erosion of a universal ethos. Conservatism in the Fifties meant not only a respect for the essential nature of the family unit, its centrality to society, and its extension of a long Biblical tradition; but for the value of commonwealth.  The integral, permanent nature of families – and the love, respect, and tolerance it takes for them to survive - is no different from that of nations.  Patriotism is an extension of family.

Edward Albee said it best when he noted that families were vicious, destructive, and damaging; but that marriage was the crucible of maturity.  Only in a traditional marriage where the contract was permanent, without amendments, codicils, or caveats, can one develop the instincts and abilities to understand how life works.  Human nature is such, Albee explained, that it determines behavior at all levels of society from the family to the republic; and when subjected to the confines of marriage, there can be no escaping moral judgment.

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Much has been made of the oppressed housewife of the Fifties – put-upon, undervalued, overworked, and overlooked; yet one only has to look at the heroines of Shakespeare’s plays or those of Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov to understand how women in the most patriarchal of times did quite well indeed.  Rosalind, Portia, and Viola ran rings around the men who courted them and bested them at every turn.  Hedda Gabler, Rebekka West, and Hilda Wangel correctly assessed their position in marriage and society and knew how to get from it what they wanted.  Patriarchy and male authority were simply constraints within which to operate.

Although the social conservatism of the Fifties encouraged a demure and sexless public posture, it was no different from any other in terms of its sexual escapades.  The New England town of New Brighton had its sexual underground, its permanently sexual and devious side, the world of illicit affairs, shady dealings, and circus side shows of weird babies, thieves, and crooked gamblers. 

Melissa Blevins, fir example, wife of the Methodist minister, who, like one of Tennessee Williams' frail, delicate women, lived a life of dutiful submission to her husband, to his faith, and to her two children; but beneath this patent veneer, she was a serial lover, a promiscuous, demanding woman who satisfied the priests, doctors, lawyers, and dentists of her town without conditions or consequences.  She was a libertine, a woman for whom no settled, muddled life would ever be enough.  She, like her Victorian counterparts, was careful and canny in her planning and deceit, and her cinq-a-sept rendezvous were quiet, hidden affairs.

Every morning Mrs. Miller, made up, chipper, and dressed in a bright pastel pinafores regardless of season, opened her front door at 8:30 exactly, walked briskly to the bus stop, boarded the 32 and headed off to her job as a dental hygienist in the same building as Arnold’s father.  Forty five minutes later Mr. Miller emerge, spiffily dressed, brown fedora in winter, straw boater in summer, into his car to head to his job in Wethersfield.  Both, at precisely 4:15 headed off for their assignations in Bristol and Meriden, and were at home in time for the casserole dinner Mrs. Miller had prepared that morning. 

Marvin Epstein was a furrier the go-to place for matrons from New Brighton and as far away as tony West Hartford.  Minks, sables, ermine, fox – he had them all, perfectly made by New York tailors, elegant, and on display.  It was rumored that despite his lucrative business and standing in the community, Marvin was involved in questionable securities trading.  

He was overheard talking about Grand Cayman, the Turks and Caicos, and the Canaries, but never went on vacations, and only traveled by the New York, New Haven & Hartford once a week – ‘to attend to business’, he explained to his poker group at the Jewish Club in Wethersfield, ‘nothing more, nothing less’, but everyone knew or assumed they new what he was up to.  What they did not know was that his trips were punctuated by afternoons at the Westerly, an out-of-the-way hotel too far west to be chic but clean enough for a love affair. 

Every small town in America is Peyton Place, the fictional town of early television which, just like New Brighton, was a model of rectitude, propriety, and good taste; but barely beneath this well-curated and –cultivated veneer was a smarmy, sex-smelling brothel.  What could be more dramatic? Intrigue, deceit, shameless sex and promiscuity, the fodder for Hollywood, was there for the asking.  No, it did not have the bright sun, tinsel, and palm -treed elegance of Los Angeles; and managed only a feeble sun in winter and cloying humidity in summer, but it had all the ingredients of hot afternoon soap opera.

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Who cared if Melissa Blevins did bed every dentist in New Brighton or not? Or whether the Puccini Brothers were actually local fronts for the New Haven mafia.  Or whether or with whom Marvin Epstein was sexually entangled.  It was the rumors, the innuendos, the offhanded remark, the raised eyebrows which gave life to this otherwise dull and unremarkable city.

There was no inconsistency between the above-ground and below-ground New Brighton.  There was no reason why the good burghers of the town could not honestly and dutifully believe in a faithful marriage, the church, and the conservative social principles of society while burrowing beneath someone else’s sheets.  

Occasional trysts or secret assignations were no sexual free-for-all, no abandonment of the idea of marriage, no dismissal of the need for it as an institution.  Albee’s vision has never lost salience.  Sexual indiscretions are part and parcel of marriage and events to be worked out.  Forgiveness, reconciliation, and returned harmony are not idle, self-centered, male ploys; but at the very heart of every marriage since the first human families.

It is easy to smirk at the advertisements of the day – the frilly cocktail aprons, the dutiful wife serving dinner to her family, the peck on the cheek as her husband goes off to work – but the society of the Fifties was at the very least fundamentally sound in its belief in family, faith, and nation.  The Fifties was perhaps the last era where America was indeed one nation subscribing to one universal ethos, and strong and optimistically ambitious thanks to it.

Did the Fifties have its fault lines, cracks, and imperfections?  Of course.  No one approaching the Fifties can ignore the seeds of the rebellious Sixties.  The era’s social conservatism was indeed uncharitable to racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities; but the following decades disassembled if not destroyed the foundations of a universal American culture and ethos to rectify these issues.  Throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

We are all such children of the Sixties that most of us cannot imagine living in any other social community.  While many regret the loss of the fundamental, socially conservative values that were at the heart of Jefferson’s thinking, most do not want to return to an age of prescription.  Yet a growing segment of the population, upset and confused by a progressive juggernaut which is rolling over every foundational principle of the Founding Fathers, Biblical injunction, and common sense, look to the Fifties for inspiration or at least a glimpse of a society which had both integrity and freedom.

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