Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Living in the Fifties

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

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.


  1. Anonymous4:50 PM

    For me, it's the innocence of the age. Things seem to have been so much simpler then. We're so post-everything these days it's hard to know what we actually are and I think the 50s represent a time when we did, even if it turned out we were wrong.

  2. I think the 50s is precisely like a gelatine salad - the things that they had to do to make it look good from the outside are the very things that make it utterly indigestible on closer inspection.

    I prefer the forties for decade porn. Hair, skirt lengths, and women who worked in offices with typewriters. But I do like fifties fabrics. Gorgeous.

  3. I think innocence is definitely part of it - I like Jane Austen's England for that reason too - so easy to be a feminist, wandering around saying witty understated things at parties (whereas the reality of course would be stifling).

    I think there is also a post-war fascination. I love the 40s too Penthe, but there is something about the 50s, the idea that everyone survived the big bad and are now building the brave new appliance at a time. On the one hand everything feels so rock solid - the depression is over, the war is over. On the other hand there is this permeating anxiety about what they're supposed to do with themselves now...what does everything mean? And then from our point of view there's something exciting about knowing that the sixties lies just round the corner and everything, all this constraint is just about to erupt - you know, like Pleasantville.

  4. Anonymous1:10 PM

    That book comes to mind all the time for some reason. I read it so many times when I was little--I used to think "Stan" was such a dashing, exciting name for a guy because of that book. Oh, god, I almost need to erase that previous sentence because it's too embarrassing.

    I've always been fascinated by that time, too. It's the look, and it's what was happening underneath the veneer that gets me.

  5. Anonymous1:35 PM

    Penni - Do you differentiate between the fifties in the US and Australia in your era lust? I seem much more drawn to what I perceive as the US version than the Aus.

    When I think of the shiny domestic, the escape from war privation, the breathless excitement about the wonderous possibilities of new technology - I think of the US not Aus. Maybe I can blame film and TV for that. Or maybe I can blame my mother, who paints her own vivid (Technicolour?) picture of the fifties in Australia (she was born in '39) as a narrow, inward-looking world of strong sectarian hostilities and snobbishness, where no one had ever heard of garlic. *shudder*

    When it comes to era lust, I've got a little thing at the moment for Medieval Europe. Ignoring plague, and dentistry and ruthless class systems (etc etc), I'm very drawn to the idea of intimate, connected village life that revolves around the seasons, where you consume what you grow, make or trade. In the village of my dreams people feast, play music and tell stories and do useful things like grow sheep, shear sheep, card wool, spin wool and knit.

    This is probably a symptom of:
    a) living in a large and at times impersonal city
    b) being on a craft kick
    c) reading Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael mysteries - pure monastery porn. (Never thought I'd use those words together.)

  6. I want to be a fifties husband!

    Do you like Mad Men? I wondered if 'distasteful' meant the characters or the show?

    I've just read Revolutionary Road - the books is much better than the film - and that's a sublime evocation of the 1950s as the beginning of the modern age. Very dark, but the writing ... beautiful.

  7. Oh I love Mad Men, in an unsettling way. O think it is genius television - the kind of television that makes me wish I wrote for TV. 'Distasteful' is definitely the characters, but they also all seem so vulnerable and lost.

  8. Oh good - I love Mad Men too! Yes, it's very unsettling indeed. And made me want to write to Germaine Greer and thank her for feminism - kind of the desired effect, I suspect. ("Look how good we have it now; how tolerant we are!")

    Really, if you love it I suggest you try Revolutionary Road. Similarly unsettling - though even more so.