Saturday, October 27, 2012

On American Mid-Century Middlebrow

I've decided that I approve.

I'm very keenly aware that the rising tide of my advancing years is hurling me toward the shoals of old fartitude, and that the most conspicuous features of that deadly lee shore are precisely those that summon up the keenest yearning for a vanished past. Fortunately (fortunately?) I am lashed to the mast of my forward progress toward…well, you know. The past is irrecoverable, and howsoever much those pangs may afflict me (and I first remember a sense that the Good Old Days had slipped irretrievably behind me in 1958, the year I turned six), I'm not going home again.

But geez, I do miss the cultural polity that was a model for the striving US middle class in the calm and complacent fifties and sixties. Complacent? There were, to be sure, nerve-racking episodes like the Cuban Missile Crisis of half a century ago, but with the admittedly conspicuous exception of the fear of being blown to isotopes, there was a certain security in believing that rational men were seeing to the affairs of the country. The American middle class of the day was largely optimistic and hence progressive: if upward mobility was a condition of civic and economic life, who would not look forward to the future? But this model of economic advancement had its counterpart in the intellectual realm: the suburbs, seeded with college grads who'd made it that far on the strength of the GI Bill, would breed a brighter new generation for a confident country at the top of its game. I'm thinking particularly of what has lately been called the “Mad Men” era, from the late Eisenhower years through the abrupt end of Kennedy’s Camelot, with that forward momentum of idealism and optimism carrying the culture into mid-decade, when those characteristics began rapidly to transmogrify into something rich and strange and still quarreled over as the so-called “Sixties.”

I'll pause here to make the standard and obligatory stipulation (obligatory, that is, for those of us outside the fevered fantasies of the nascent brownshirt movement that afflicts our public life today) that the era under consideration is not universally remembered as a vanished golden age by sundry classes of then politically, economically, culturally or sexually disenfranchised Americans. You may imagine this disclaimer to be as eloquent and as detailed as you like, and I will sign it.

I’m considering here the cultural climate, as perhaps descried from the managerial and professional classes of the day, obtaining from about 1959 to 1965: the stories they told themselves, the stories they listened to, the stories they felt appropriate for their children.

Exhibit A: The Time-Life “Great Ages of Man” series. This twenty-one volume series, handsomely produced, lavishly illustrated, well-written by noted scholars (although subjected, one suspects, to a certain amount of sanding and polishing to impart to the narrative surface the distinctive triumphalist wordview of publisher Henry R. “American Century” Luce), were sold by subscription to suburban households across This Great Land of Ours between 1965 and 1968. Each volume treated a Great Age: Imperial Rome. Ancient Egypt. Classical Greece. Early India. Byzantium. Rise of Russia. Renaissance. I own them all, having begun adulthood owning perhaps a fifth of the series and completing the collection in the decades since by application variously to the used bookstores with which neighboring Berkeley is well stocked and, these latter years, to online commerce. I have also purchased complete sets for two or three teenaged children of friends.

When I present these books to youngsters to whom I doubtless appear an eccentric, almost grotesque social appendage of their parents, I’m careful to warn them that notwithstanding the high production values and sound scholarship of the books, they are drenched in some cultural assumptions that will sound an odd note to a young person educated in the polyglot and polycultural environment of the Bay Area, which appears sometimes for better or for worse (for better, is my own guess) to be shedding the skin of the traditional American nation-state and morphing into something I can’t yet see the outlines of. The series title is “The Great Ages of Man”; left unsaid at the time but loud and clear nonetheless was the message that of all Man’s Great Ages there could be little doubt that the Greatest of all of these was the Age and culture that produced “The Great Ages of Man.” Occasionally this lofty assumption of cultural superiority became explicit and even cringeworthy, as in one of the concluding paragraphs of the volume Ancient America:

The strange civilizations of the ancient Americans will never rise again. Developed in isolation, they were imperfect and could not compete with the dynamic world culture that crossed the Atlantic with the Spaniards.

It’s more than a little unfair, though, to judge the cultural assumptions of half a century ago against our enlightened standards of 2012. I guarantee that some of today's most comfortable premises are going to look at best pretty comical in 2062.

What I admire today about the "Great Ages" books is how well-written and edited they are, and how they were aimed primarily at an audience of high schoolers. High schoolers and their parents, I should say: there was a common ethos of intellectual self-improvement. Today, I fear, these volumes would soar above the heads of tenth-graders and their sires. Nevertheless: Discount the American chest-beating and there are riches of historical knowledge here—not a lot to satisfy a serious scholar, but enough to enrich a young person’s context for future input.

Exhibit B: Horizon Magazine was an upper-middlebrow quarterly published between hard covers for about twenty years beginning in 1958. My parents, who had intellectual aspirations, subscribed for a few years early on, and tended to leave copies on the coffee table. Beginning just the past few years I’ve been collecting old numbers beginning with the maiden issue, and these have constituted such happy nightstand reading that I will probably aim eventually for the entire run (eventually rising production costs forced the publication, following a change of ownership, from hard covers into the conventional magazine format: I am sufficiently the middlebrow child of my parents for this to constitute a dealbreaker).

Horizon is a delight. Its early issues engage still. Let us consider Volume 1, Number 3, from January 1959. What riches there are in its 144 pages, unsullied by adverts! Noted architect and historian Allan Temko writes about “The Flowering of San Francisco.” Arthur C. Clarke contributes a piece, penned immediately post-Sputnik, on “Space and the Spirit of Man.” There’s a piece on “A New Music Made with a Machine,” profiling Stockhausen, Cage and others who were about to transform the upper echelons of music. P.G. Wodehouse and Somerset Maugham each contribute humorous pieces, George Plimpton interviews Hemingway in Cuba and William K. Zinsser, who was then thirty-seven and is now ninety, writes humorously but without being too condescending about the follies of the then-young in “The Tyranny of the Teens.” Incidentally, the very youngest of the teens Zinsser was poking fun at in January 1959 are about to turn sixty-seven, and the oldest, seventy-three.

What impresses me about the thirty some-odd issues of Horizon I’ve scored to date is how eminently civilized they are. I live in fear lest a back issue somehow come in physical contact with, say, the average individual who leaves a comment on a news story posted at Yahoo: surely the collision would obliterate all life, property and matter within a 400km radius of Macon GA.

What I think doesn’t matter, of course, and whether or not my ears are stopped, this ship of fate sails where it will, and the siren song of the past affects its course not at all. But I miss the placid shallows of half a century ago, and I miss the mild middlebrow ethos that yearned for self-improvement rather than the Dionysian wallow in anti-intellectualism that lately appears ever-poised to overtake us.