The Fifties

by David Halberstam

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In David Halberstam's book The Fifties, a number of passages reinforce the them of this decade as a period in which technologically-enabled commercial culture became a powerful source of social and political influence. Three quotations capture the process by which this shift occurred.

Halberstam remarks that

America, it appeared, was slowly but surely learning to live with affluence convincing itself that it had earned the right to its new appliances and cars. Each year seemed to take the country further from its old Puritan restraints; each year it was a little easier to sell than in the past.

In this passage, Halberstam situates the rise of advertising, as facilitated through the new medium of television, in the historical trajectory of American culture from the colonial period onward. To his mind, "Puritan restraints" had previously inhibited the development of a culture oriented around consumption. Here, advertising figures as a means of loosening those restraints. Yet this process is represented as a gradual one. Halberstam emphasizes that that "each year" the country became more and more acclimated to selling (and, implicitly, to buying). Yet he does not posit any key historical touch-points in this supposed process. Nor does he indicate what complete "ease" with respect to selling would entail.

The role of television is central in Halberstam's analysis of the fifties. He argues that

One reason that Americans as a people became nostalgic about the fifties more than twenty-five years later was not so much that life was better in the fifties (though in some ways it was), but because at the time it had been portrayed so idyllically on television.

This argument suggests a split between representation and reality. Representations of reality, Halberstam suggests, were as powerful, if not more powerful, than actual memories. As such, what people longed for was in fact the fiction of what had been rather than what was. Yet one must remember that the fifties were also a period in which non-idyllic representations of reality (such as horror films and psychological dramas) also flourished.

With respect to politics, Halberstam notes accurately that

Television changed the relationship of the nation with its politicians.

Whereas radio had given the public access to politicians' voices, television created a false sense of intimacy with politicians by giving the public access to their appearances, mannerisms, and family relationships. Here, as with the buying and selling of goods, a split between representation and reality took hold, with the effect that people's impressions of politicians became as powerful, if not more powerful, than the words and deeds of elected leaders. Since America is a representative constitutional republic, the rise of visual representations of politicians directly affected the political dynamics of the country. People changed their ideas about who the people were representing their interests based in part on images circulated by television.

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