American culture did not really start swinging until the tumultuous 1960’s. Throughout the sleepy Eisenhower years, the United States dozed under a mom-and-apple-pie sky, quietly embracing its traditional values, nurturing its families in the manner of Father Knows Best, and giving its naive allegiance to authority and the status quo. An accurate analysis? In Deliberate Speed: The Origins of a Cultural Style in the American 1950’s, W. T. Lhamon, Jr., answers with a resounding “No.” Far from being a sleepy decade, the 1950’s, according to Lhamon, were poised atop a fault line of tremendous instability, rocking and rolling their way with deliberate speed toward seismic upheavals in politics, art, music, literature, and technology.
Specifically, Lhamon’s book attacks those 1960’s chauvinists who have claimed, mostly without challenge, that American culture took a dramatically new and radical turn during that decade. Lhamon argues that the culture of the 1960’s merely ratified and popularized ideas that actually had their birth in the 1950’s. When the point is put this way, one hardly needs to crack the spine of Deliberate Speed to agree with Lhamon. Unless one subscribes to a kind of cultural parthenogenesis, a belief that 1960’s culture hatched itself whole with no prior fertilization, Lhamon’s thesis sounds like plain common sense. Were this all Lhamon set out to prove, his rethinking of the 1950’s might be nothing more than a workmanlike correction to the annals of cultural history, spotting trends, tracing roots, getting the facts and figures straight. Deliberate Speed, however, is more than that. What makes this book such fascinating reading is Lhamon’s method as much as his facts. His excursions across disciplines—from politics to rock and roll, from photography to philosophy, from technology to abstract art—are dizzying, but sound. What emerges from Lhamon’s analysis is not only a rethinking of the 1950’s but also a rethinking of popular culture itself, in particular the way it shapes and perpetually renews the world of ideas around it.
After an initial survey of the aesthetic mood of the American 1950’s, Lhamon draws the reader’s attention to that moment when the Civil Rights movement has traditionally been said to begin: December 1, 1955, the day a forty-two-year-old seamstress, Rosa Parks, refused to move to the back of a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. This one small dissident act inspired a boycott that drew national attention and threw a previously unknown pastor, Martin Luther King, Jr., onto the national stage. Only a kind of historical romanticism would write this moment off to the precariousness of chance, a speculation that if Parks had not been too tired to give up her seat that night, the whole thing might never have happened. Parks’s act, like many of the history-altering events of the 1950’s, was an improvisation, but an improvisation that had been carefully prepared. This was a moment that was waiting to happen. Lhamon describes the intricate set of background activities that synergistically supplied the match to ignite the moment. Rosa Parks was no stranger to political activism. Among other activities, she had served as secretary to the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, whose leader, E. D. Nixon, had recently targeted the city’s segregated bus service as a system needing change. Jo Ann Robinson, a teacher at Alabama College and head of the Women’s Political Council in Montgomery had been humiliated years earlier by a local bus driver and, with the other members of her organization, was waiting for the proper moment to launch a boycott. Within hours of Parks’s arrest, Robinson had run off thousands of leaflets urging the black community to boycott the bus line. Parks’s pastor, a young, articulate, and as yet politically unaligned spokesman, was elected to head the boycott committee. King had less than an hour to prepare his speech for the first rally on December 5, but the boiling frustration of years spent living under a racist system no doubt supplied the words. Had it not been Rosa Parks, there would have been another. The 1950’s black culture was aching for change.
Months earlier, Chief Justice Earl Warren had delivered the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, urging the rapid desegregation of the nation’s public schools. The actual phrase Warren used to underscore the urgency of this directive was “with all deliberate speed.” Lhamon considers this a key phrase for the times, going beyond the urgency for social change to describe the tempo of the 1950’s culture as a whole. Life was moving forward at breakneck speed on a number of fronts. The United States was in the throes of transformation, shedding the skin of an industrial society to enter the postindustrial age.
It was not only among blacks that discontent was brewing. The characterization of the mass culture of the time as blandly complacent is misleading. Though television shows such as Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best celebrated family unity, beneath this glossy surface the American family unit was disintegrating. Novels, films, music, and art of the...
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