Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Living in the Fifties

This is The Best Blurb Ever (Onions take note):

FIFTEEN
by Beverly Cleary (first published in 1954, this is from the 1977 Puffin edition)

This is the story of one summer in the life of fifteen-year-old Jane Purdy. She is quite an ordinary sort of girl, with quite ordinary hopes and fears.

What is different about her is that she is an American; which also means that quite a lot of things happen to her a little bit sooner that they happen in other countries.

If she had been a British girl, for instance, she wouldn't have had such long holidays, or spent so much of them earning money by baby-sitting. And Stan would not have been delivering dogs' meat to help pay his way through college. In fact he would have been allowed to drive a van at all, because he wouldn't have been old enough to have a license, and Jane and Stan probably wouldn't have met each other until a year later.

But whether Jane is British or American, or fifteen or sixteen, what she feels through this summer and how she copes with the first pangs of growing up are very delicately and truly set down in this book. As anyone who has ever stayed home waiting for the telephone to ring will surely tell you.

...
Those American girls, they're fast I tell you. Jane even washes her hair twice, in the same week!

Here's another taster:
'I have it!' exclaimed the florist. 'How about glads?' He reached into the refrigerator and brought out a couple of stalks of pink gladiolas and held them up for Jane's inspection. 'Nothing sissy about glads is there?'

Having said that, the book for the most part doesn't feel that dated. It has these quirks but I remember reading it as a teenager and I don't recall even really noticing the old-fashioned attitudes. Jane is a pretty cool chick really, and her journey is mostly towards excepting herself for the utterly ordinary girl that she is (which is a refreshing change from the 'everyone's a celebrity deep down' slant of the new millennium).

I'm obviously not the only one having a strange renewed fascination with the fifties (I've had lots of conversations recently about the sublimely distasteful Mad Men). I've been reading Sylvia Plath, The Hours and I've just got The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit out of the library. Perhaps its a response to the general zeitgheist - how did we become the consumers we are, and who will we be in a post-consumerist age? How inextricably are our identities tied up in the world of things, have we been so hollowed out by the mad men? Perhaps this is just a recession/depression, or perhaps we're in our next stage of social evolution...

The thing that makes me curious is why is there something about the aesthetics of the domestic in the fifties that is so damn alluring to me? Is it just social programming? Does it represent some exotic other, some media constructed perfect woman, that I still feel on some level I ought to aspire to? Or does it work on some other level? I don't mean here that I want to be a fifties housewife. Really I don't. But I love to ogle it. I love to read about constructions of fifties femininity, about etiquette and fashions and gelatin salads.