From “Happy Days” to “Mad Men”

(Crossposted at Arcade.)

Some recent conversations on Arcade have gotten me thinking about midcentury America, or rather our idea of the midcentury as a privileged moment of literary production, consumption, and promise. In particular, I’ve been turning over Natalia Cecire’s query, “[W]hat is to be gained in mourning the passing of a genre or a medium”?  We might also ask, what is to be gained in mourning the passing of an era?

To begin thinking through how we might answer these questions, let’s recall two forms of nostalgia for midcentury America.

The classic form of midcentury nostalgia comes from the cultural (and often the political) right. Celebrating the fertility and energy of midcentury intellectual and popular culture was a solution to the problem posed by the 1960s. The problem was that the 1960s screwed everything up; the solution was to recall those days when things weren’t nearly so screwed up, when there was consensus, order, and good sense all around. Think of American Graffiti (1973), Happy Days (1974-84), the vision of the good life invoked by Reagan’s “Morning in America” (1984).

These fantasies saw the 50s as simpler, square-jawed, short-haired times, before all those crazy America-hating radicals took over the country. By these accounts, even rebellion against the era’s norms have nostalgia value.  Fredric Jameson ably describes the aesthetics of such rightward-leaning nostalgia in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism:

Nostalgia films restructure the whole issue of pastiche and project it onto a collective and social level, where the desperate attempt to appropriate a missing past is now refracted through the iron law of fashion change and the emergent ideology of the generation. The inaugural film of this new aesthetic discourse, George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973), set out to recapture, as so many films have attempted since, the henceforth mesmerizing lost reality of the Eisenhower era; and one tends to feel, that for Americans at least, the 1950s remain the priviledged lost object of desire — not merely the stability and prosperity of a pax Americana but also the first naïve innocence of the countercultural impulses of early rock and roll and youth gangs.

Lately, though, nostalgia for midcentury has come largely from the left. Left midcentury nostalgia focuses on the era’s broad manufacturing-led economic growth, relatively higher levels of economic equality, relatively more regulated markets, better capital controls, etc., while also admitting that there were endemic — and highly destructive — problems within the domains of race, gender, sexuality, foreign policy. One thinks immediately of Paul Krugman’s The Conscience of a Liberal, but even Naomi Klein, in her recent Shock Doctrine, pines for a return to the Keynesian welfare state or the era of “embedded liberalism."  Whether one agrees in every particular with the policy preferences of these writers, there is something valuable in remembering that things were once otherwise, that our current economic, social, and intellectual environment once looked quite different. In this sense, nostalgia can be very useful, if only in a qualified form.

More often, however, left nostalgia for the midcentury fetishizes the intellectual culture of the period, longing for an era when Partisan Review–like little magazines were all the rage, when even the CIA felt obliged to pay attention to intellectuals, and when more formal social norms forced people to wear fabulous outfits. The medium-sized cult that has emerged around Mad Men exemplifies the left nostalgia I have in mind — and I admit to being a card-carrying member of the cult. Through from one perspective we might see the show as arguing for the fundamental necessity of the 1960s — and, indeed, racism, homophobia, sexual harassment, and corruption run rampant in the halls of Sterling Cooper — do we not also detect that the creators of the show possess a kind of obsessive love for the era’s material culture? Are we not supposed to revel in the idea of reading Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency (1957) shortly after its publication? Abstracting beyond Mad Men, don’t left midcentury nostalgics wish they could non-ironically have the top of their heads (metaphorically) blown off by some symposium in the pages of Partisan Review? Be shocked again by countercultural subversion as if for the first time, all while enjoying some tasty martinis?

This second version of left midcentury nostalgia seems less productive to me. If we want to return to a dynamic, vibrant literary-intellectual culture, we shouldn’t attempt to revive the styles of some previous era, even its intellectual styles, however appealing those styles might often be. The real task ahead of us is to build new institutions, to coordinate with educational activists, to build synthetic accounts of the present moment that help us lay the foundation for the flourishing of whatever new intellectual culture will be — with luck, effort, and invention — looked back upon nostalgically by future generations.

This should be our mission.