The Fifties Essay - Critical Essays

The Fifties

The first thing one is apt to notice about this book is how big it is. An 800-page book requires no small commitment, and you may well begin reading it with a deep breath and a gulp. However, once begun, THE FIFTIES is a book you will put down reluctantly and return to eagerly—especially if you have lived through the fascinating decade in question.

Although not all of the fifties is here, Halberstam’s history of the period contains much that is memorable—the shame of the McCarthy Hearings; the intrigue of the development of the H-Bomb; the impact of television with Uncle Miltie, Lucille Ball, and Ozzie and Harriet; the cultural impact of Elvis and the rise of rock and roll; the anti-heroes of Hollywood—Marlon Brando and James Dean; Hugh Hefner’s Playboy empire; Martin Luther King and the desegregation movement; the power of General Motors; the marketing magic of the Big Mac; the Kinsey Report; Peyton Place; Sputnik. Merely to list all the names and events would take up this entire review.

Halberstam’s approach to all this material is breezy but not superficial, sound but never stuffy, and always engaged and engaging. Although it may at first seem that his account—basically chronological—is purely anecdotal and therefore lacking any underlying unity or analytical understanding of the era, a closer look reveals a powerful theme that runs throughout the book. Largely because of impact of television and its concomitant elements, advertising and mass marketing, what influences practically every event and personage Halberstam describes here is the concept of image and the increasing difficulty of distinguishing between reality and fantasy. From Douglas McArthur’s “old soldier” posturing to Marilyn Monroe’s famous “vulnerability,” it was hard to tell during the period what was real and what was rhetoric. The fifties may have been the first decade in history in which image and information were so pervasive; never again would people feel completely sure about anything.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. June 20, 1993, XIV, p.3.

The Christian Science Monitor. July 16, 1993, p.14.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 20, 1993, p.4.

The Nation. CCLVII, September 20, 1993, p.287.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, June 20, 1993, p.12.

Newsweek. CXXI, June 7, 1993, p.65.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, April 26, 1993, p.63.

Time CXLII, July 19, 1993, p.63.

The Wall Street Journal. June 23, 1993, p. A12.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, May 23, 1993, p.1.