Social Criticism in The Fifties– Introduction

Derided for its conformity and consumerism, 1950s America paid a price in anxiety. Prosperity existed under the shadow of a mushroom cloud. Optimism wore a Bucky Beaver smile that masked worry over threats at home and abroad. Consumption became the reigning value and essential to individual’s identity and status. Satisfaction was achieved through the purchase and use of new products. Consumer borrowing also fueled economic boom, as consumers increasingly made more purchases on installment plans. Diner’s Club issued the first credit card in 1951 – as a result, private debt more than doubled during the decade. TV also had an impact on the consumer culture – commercials for the products of the affluent society. Advertisers spent $10 billion to push their goods. Television dominated leisure time, influenced consumption patterns, and shaped perceptions of the nation’s leadership.

But equally important were critiques that expressed a series of anxieties and thwarted desires that were particular to the white male culture of the time. There was a growing fear that the modern world threatened their autonomy, their independence, their authenticity. Employees of large corporate organizations, the critics of the 1950s and early 1960s argued, learned to dress alike, to pattern their lives in similar ways, to adopt similar values and goals, to place a high value on “getting along” within the hierarchical structure of the corporation. In fact, complaints about the conformity, the homogeneity of the culture of organization became one of the staples of social criticism in the 1950s, as social scientists came to see in this culture a challenge to the capacity of individuals to retain any psychological autonomy. The organization, they argued, was a debilitating force, creating alienated conformists afraid to challenge prevailing norms. They were people who would take no risks; people who feared to be different. Corporate workers, critics argued, faced constant pressures to get along by going along. The sociologist David Riesman wrote in his influential book, The Lonely Crowd (1950), that modern society was giving birth to a new kind of man. In earlier eras, most men and women had been “inner-directed” people, defining themselves largely in terms of their own values and goals, their own sense of their worth. Now (during The Fifties), argued Riesman, the dominant personality was coming to be “other-directed” man, defining himself in terms of the opinions and goals of others, or in terms of the bureaucratically established goals of the organization. (See fuller discussion of The Lonely Crowd below).

The problems and injustices and dislocations of the Fifties seemed hidden under a haze of bright, cheerful, affirmative images of a prosperous middle-class nation happily embarked on a new period in its history—enthroned as the richest and most powerful nation in the world. But, social critics pointed to problems that were hidden underneath the surface. There were many books, fiction and non-fiction, about “suburban misery,” all similar in theme – “the novel of suburban malaise.”