The Fifties are generally considered to be a stable period in American life. After the economic hardships of the Great Depression in the Thirties and the challenges of World War II in the Forties, the United States was ready for this period of relative calm.
However, hindsight gives us a more interesting appraisal of what was going on in the Fifties. Several developments in the areas of civil rights, literature, and music signaled the momentous changes that were coming in just a few years as America entered the Sixties, possibly the most tumultuous of all American decades.
Musically, the birth of rock and roll influenced society in terms of more than just what people heard on the radio. Elvis Presley’s success in combining black and white music may have sparked protest among the white establishment, but it also led eventually to increased inclusion of black culture in mainstream American life.
In literature, the Fifties saw the birth of a literary group called the Beat Generation. The website Literature Network characterized this group this way:
The taboos against frank discussions of sexuality were seen as unhealthy and possibly damaging to the psyche. In the world of literature and art, the Beats stood in opposition to the clean, almost antiseptic formalism of the early twentieth century Modernists.
Although the “Beats” did not revolutionize literature the way that rock and roll did music, they did pave the way for a more socially realistic literary tradition moving forward.
Finally, and most importantly, The Civil Rights movement continued to grow and increase its social impact. In 1955 Rosa Parks famously refused to change her seat and move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Meanwhile, Martin Luther King began to develop his arm of the movement, using nonviolent protest as a strategy, and in 1957 helped launch the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as its first president.
The United States was not simply locked in conformity in the Fifties. It was in something more like a state of incubation, as new forces gathered before exploding into a social revolution in the Sixties.
The three most important characteristics of American society during this time were conformity, prosperity, and fear of communism.
This was early in the Cold War when fears of communism were at a peak. It was the time of McCarthyism where people’s rights were abridged because of the fear of communist subversion.
At the same time, this was a time of rising prosperity. The US was the only major industrial country that was left untouched by World War II (in terms of damage to the homeland). This helped the US enjoy total economic dominance that led to a rising standard of living. This rising wealth allowed American teens, for example, to indulge in a new teen culture that came to include rock and roll music and a passion for cars.
Finally, this is seen as the decade of conformity. The adults of the time had lived through the Depression and the war and wanted nothing more than to work hard and make a good life for themselves and their families.
While these characteristics do not tell the whole story of the decade, they capture most of what was important at the time.