Julie Mofford, a former staffer at the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission, who currently lives in midcoast Maine where she writes and works as a museum and historical society consultant, shares her memories of the 1950s . . .
“The Un-Fabulous Fifties or How I Became Beat” by Julie Mofford
Years before “Mad Men,” there existed enclaves of “Little Boxes” surrounded by white picket fences. These days, many people look back at the 1950s with wistful nostalgia recalling a golden era of innocence and security. A generation that had muddled through the Great Depression and helped win World War II welcomed this new period of prosperity where the most pressing concerns seemed to be spreading crab-grass or when that shiny appliance bought on-time would be delivered. Cars with ever-growing tailfins became fashion statements announcing affluence. Joe DiMaggio slammed home-runs and wed Marilyn, while children hula-hooped and donned Davy Crockett caps, Eddie Fisher sang over 45-rpms and Rosemary Clooney invited everyone to “Come-On-A-My-House.” Yet beneath backyard barbeques often lay bomb shelters, for fear loomed a constant shadow over this American Dream. Sputnik proved Russia was beating us in the Space Race although J. Edgar Hoover and Senator Joseph McCarthy did their best to save the country from creeping communism. Non-conformity was risky when getting hired meant taking a Loyalty Oath: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” School children learned to “Duck ‘n Cover,” and though Nat King Cole topped the Hit Parade with Mona Lisa, he was hardly welcome in Whites Only suburbs. Nor did dads who commuted to their jobs in cities generally mix with minorities. Sociologists observed the insecurity behind the glass picture windows of ranch-style houses and called it the Age of Anxiety. In some places, places like Lowell, the Fabulous Fifties meant unemployment as more mills closed to relocate south and synthetic fibers replaced cotton manufacturing.
Not every girl wanted to grow up to become June Cleaver in her ubiquitous apron and high heels. Boys I went out with failed to understand why I planned on attending college. “Whatsamatter? Don’t you think I’ll be able to support you?” College degrees earned by young women promised a short list of job choices: teacher, nurse, librarian, and secretary-typists. My dream was to become a writer and live on the Left Bank of Paris like Hemingway. Guys who interested me would not be caught dead wearing white buck shoes and were never going to become Men in Grey Flannel Suits. No, they wore their hair long enough to comb back into DAs and were apt to resemble James Dean or Marlon Brando. I wanted nothing to do with settling down into the status quo. To me, the lack of diversity within these Levittowns seemed monotonous; as bland and boring as black and white television. I rejected the lifestyle required by a consumer culture that I believed stifled individuality and creativity. I admired authors and artists who’d suffered and starved for the sake of art. I read the existentialists, attended French New Wave and Ingmar Bergman films, frequented abstract expressionist art shows and tacked prints by the surrealists on my walls. From our interracial, international Quaker school in upstate New York, my friends and I boarded trains to Greenwich Village where we grooved to jazz and be-bop in smoke-filled venues such as Birdland.
Many Americans were aware that racial injustice also marked this era. If people failed to discuss it, they knew that in many places blacks were still made to sit in the back of the bus, drink water from separate fountains and use different public facilities. In September of 1957, the same month that On The Road was published, Orval Faubus, Governor of Arkansas, defied a U. S. Supreme Court mandate by summoning his National Guard to protect Central High School in Little Rock from nine black students determined to enter.
Elvis gyrated his hips, Jackson Pollack tossed buckets of paint across canvases, Jack and Neal went On the Road and Allen Ginsberg Howled, while parents and elders shuddered in horror.
Deviation of any type was hardly tolerated during the ‘fifties.
At the 1960 Republican Convention, J. Edgar Hoover proclaimed “America’s three menaces” to be “communists, beatniks and eggheads!” Beat writers were maligned and ridiculed. In the Spring 1958 issue of Partisan Review, Norman Podhoretz called them “Know Nothing Bohemians.” Beatniks were satirized on television and in movies as bearded losers in berets beating bongo drums. Their “dolls” or “chicks” inevitably wore black tights and black turtleneck sweaters. Robert Brustein spoke for a threatened literary establishment when he wrote: “With heaves, grunts, pigment splotches, and howls, ‘cool’ Beat generation practitioners of the arts are indulging in self-expression of many sorts . . . Beats represent the revolt of all the forces hostile to civilization.” The Beats were indeed, rebels against the conservative, materialistic and militaristic cultural values of the 1950s. And it was their mission to force literature out of Ivory Towers and give art back to the people.
In an interview for the Saturday Review of Literature, September 28, 1957, Jack Kerouac explained, “We love everything: Billy Graham, the Big Ten, rock and roll, apple pie, Eisenhower – we dig it all. We’re the vanguard of the new religion…”
Beat literature along with Betty Friedman’s Feminine Mystique became my personal Women’s Liberation. Both promised what Lawrence Ferlinghetti called A Rebirth of Wonder. I was ready for that Rucksack Revolution envisioned by Kerouac and Gary Snyder. Even after becoming a wife and mother, the Beats continued to impact life. Inspired by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem Junkman’s Obbligato beginning Let’s go/Come on/Let’s go/Empty out our pockets and disappear . . . , we sold our material possessions, moving abroad to teach, travel and write, first to Japan, later to the Caribbean and Spain.
The Beats provided a Bridge to the ‘Sixties. Those of us who came of age during the Silent Generation, understood that though we were unable to save the world, we would do our very best to change it. Who knew that years later I would be working in Kerouac’s home town, representing the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission on the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac! committee?