Criticism of the Fifties’ Culture

The period from the mid-to-late Fifties to the early Sixties saw a heightening of criticism of the metaphorical Levittown (and its clones) in literary and cultural forms. U.S. novels of the period presented a downbeat, unappealing and even bleak view of life in a Levittown style environment, especially John C Keats’s The Crack in the Picture Window and Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road. Social critic Keats wrote of the postwar suburban ‘solutions,’ “find a box of your own in one of the fresh air slums.” Yates spoke of an era dominated by “a general lust for conformity.” The takeaway message of these works was that the tract-home buyer was entering “a stultifying world of social alienation, the anonymity of suburbs, impersonal supermarkets, inane ‘mod’ gadgetry and mortgage servitude.” To William H. Whyte these were the “new package suburbs” whose residents (were) “transient, interchangeable cogs in the engine of corporate America” [Schuyler].

Other books, such as The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, The Lonely Crowd and The Organization Man painted similar critical pictures of American life in the Fifties. In particular, they portrayed what they saw as the deplorable, metronomic life of the American businessman, who commuted to work in his immaculate gray suit every day from his neat suburban tract house. He kept his front lawn and his hair trimmed to lengths tacitly agreed upon by his peers. He avoided high culture, and anything else that smacked of elitism. He embraced the personality tests administered to him by his corporate employers. These tests plumbed the depths of his willingness to conform. Mainly, he seemed concerned with behaving exactly as everyone else did.