What is a one-sentence summary of chapter 1 in The Age of Great Dreams?
The first chapter of The Age of Great Dreams by David Farber describes the many ways in which the lives of American citizens were changed by the new abundance of consumer choices in the 1960s, leading people to have great faith in the “wealth-producing efficiency of the postwar American economic system,” which seen as a triumph of “People’s Capitalism.”
Farber’s book captures a very significant period in modern history. Beginning by describing how iconic figures like Martin Luther King Jr., President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Francis Cardinal Spellman, head of the Roman Catholic Church, began the new decade, Farber is able to point out how America was home to both privilege and deprivation, and had grown accustomed to perceiving the world in terms of the free-market-versus-communism binary of the Cold War years. While the president spent the first day of 1960 at the “whites-only, men-only Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia,” the cleric was away addressing troops in the Middle East, where he praised the fortitude of those who lived behind the Iron Curtain. Martin Luther King Jr. was leading a march in Richmond, Virginia, against a government order to close down all the public schools in a county rather than comply with a court order to integrate the schools. With these graphic images, Farber is able to suggest divisions of race and class and how these created patterns of privilege.
The bulk of the first chapter focuses on the success of American industry, particularly the automobile industry headed by General Motors, and how Americans who had been through the Great Depression of the 1930s and the lean years of World War II found themselves spoiled for choice among the shiny gadgets and appliances advertised on the radio, in print, and on television. Inexpensive suburban housing that had allowed the migration of thousands of families to areas where they could afford a single-story home complete with a front and back yard, large kitchen, and telephones, television, washing machines, and refrigerators gave a different expression to the American dream. Large cars with shiny and exaggerated tail fins were the hallmark of this period, and more people owned cars in 1960 than had ever before in America. The electricity to power all the new appliances in people’s homes, and cheap gasoline to fuel the flashy cars, were all a part of the feeling of abundance that had taken hold of the popular imagination.
However, Farber also brings to the narrative how it was still difficult for women to overcome the gender bias and enter the workforce in any significant numbers. The suburban paradise had more stay-at-home moms and working dads as people married early and had more babies than their counterparts in other countries of post-war Europe. He points out how black rural agricultural workers from the fields where they had been employed as cotton pickers or farm workers were replaced by machinery and made their way to the cities, where they found it hard to get jobs as “unskilled” workers. While upwardly mobile, white, middle-class families moved out into the suburbs, a large black population was making its way into the cities in search of work, creating dense inner-city neighborhoods. These factors laid the foundation for enduring race and class divisions that have continued to plague American society.
In his first chapter, titled “Good Times,” David Farber has captured well the economic might of America unleashed by the end of the 1950s and the country being poised to play the role of a world leader based on this very strength.
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