A cultural history of the early 1960s

The Other Sixties by Bruce Bawer provides a richly detailed tour through the cultural landscape of the early 1960s in America. It’s published in Wilson Quarterly, which was founded the good friend of the Heritage Project, Dr. James Billington, now the Librarian of Congress.

This is a valuable article for anyone trying to answer the essential question asked by this year’s 1960 Expedition: How Was America Changed by the Sixties? The focus is on the early 1960s, a time that differed dramatically both from the 1950s and from the later 1960s and early 1970s:

Preceded by an era that was to a large extent passively conservative, and followed by a divisive epoch in which a radical-left groundswell provoked a strong conservative reaction, the early 1960s were something else entirely—a time dominated, to an extent almost unimaginable today, by reform-minded, bipartisan, consensus liberalism. The years were classical liberalism’s last hurrah.

Bawer makes his case largely by reference to television shows, musicians, and other aspects of pop culture. The essay is quite evocative for a those who remember Playhouse 90 or The Twilight Zone, but it may be opaque to today’s teenagers. It’s a good article for teachers to read as part of thinking about what to present to today’s young people. It might be useful to gather some of cultural artifacts he discusses to present to students, as they read about the time period, to help them see the way a period is reflected in and shaped by its popular culture. This would help them understand how the pop culture that surrounds them is working on them.

Students may be familiar with some of the more popular programs, which have had an ongoing life in reruns, and teachers may want to bring these up in discussions. Here, for example, is Bawer’s treatment of The Dick Van Dyke Show:

By comparison with the depiction of domesticity in such 1950s staples as The Donna Reed Show and Ozzie and Harriet, the portrait of family life on The Dick Van Dyke Show, the emblematic sitcom of the early 1960s, seemed staggering in its sheer smartness and casual elegance. Mary Tyler Moore, as Laura Petrie, revolutionized the pop-culture depiction of the American housewife simply by wearing capri pants and not spending all her time in the kitchen. (In a striking reversal of ironclad 1950s practice, Rob Petrie was occasionally shown preparing meals or mixing drinks.) The series at least touched glancingly on—though it did not quite topple—many of the social barriers that 1950s TV hadn’t dared approach: Rob’s colleague Sally Rogers was a single professional woman; his colleague Buddy Sorrell’s bar mitzvah was the centerpiece of one episode, which showed Jewishness not as a phenomenon of the immigrant ghetto (as in the 1950s series The Goldbergs) but as a part of mainstream American culture. And the cast of yet another episode included, if only briefly, a middle-class black couple who embodied none of the inane stereotypes to which black people had been bound theretofore in TV and movies (up to and including Eddie “Rochester? Anderson’s shuffling servant in the 1950s’ Jack Benny Show).

And here’s part of his treatment of the “Rat Pack”:

The most famous black person in America to be married to a white person—indeed, perhaps the most famous black person in America other than Martin Luther King, Jr.—was Sammy Davis, Jr., who was the husband of Swedish actress Mai Britt. Along with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford, Davis was a member of the “Rat Pack,? also known as “The Clan.? During the early 1960s they were the coolest thing on the continent, the very definition of hip. And the matter-of-fact inclusion of Davis among them made a powerful statement about integration. As with the unmentioned interracial affair in No Strings, the statement was all the more powerful because neither Davis nor his fellow Rat Packers were inclined to discuss or debate their racial politics. They just lived them, sometimes with real courage. The easygoing way Davis and his friends interacted on and off stage, making jokes about race rather than speeches, left many Americans feeling a lot more comfortable about the new America than they might otherwise have been.

Sinatra and his Clan were perfect symbols of the early 1960s. They were too hip for the ’50s, and too unhip—with their tuxedoes and cocktails, and their un-PC banter about booze and broads—for the dope-smoking, jeans-wearing “Sixties.?

English teachers may also be interested in his discussion of the historical and cultural context for To Kill a Mockingbird, which came out of the South of this time period.

The article is too rich and evocative to summarize, but it’s well worth a read for teachers who are introducing young people to this time period.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 10/24 at 09:02 PM






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