Men in the Middle: Searching for Masculinity in the 1950s / Edition 1

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While the 1950s have been popularly portrayed-on television and in the movies and literature-as a conformist and conservative age, the decade is better understood as a revolutionary time for politics, economy, mass media, and family life. Magazines, films, newspapers, and television of the day scrutinized every aspect of this changing society, paying special attention to the lifestyles of the middle-class men and their families who were moving to the suburbs newly springing up outside American cities. Much of this attention focused on issues of masculinity, both to enforce accepted ideas and to understand serious departures from the norm. Neither a period of "male crisis" nor yet a time of free experimentation, the decade was marked by contradiction and a wide spectrum of role models. This was, in short, the age of Tennessee Williams as well as John Wayne.

In Men in the Middle, James Gilbert uncovers a fascinating and extensive body of literature that confronts the problems and possibilities of expressing masculinity in the 1950s. Drawing on the biographies of men who explored manhood either in their writings or in their public personas, Gilbert examines the stories of several of the most important figures of the day-revivalist Billy Graham, playwright Tennessee Williams, sociologist David Riesman, sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, Playboy literary editor Auguste Comte Spectorsky, and TV-sitcom dad Ozzie Nelson-and allows us to see beyond the inherited stereotypes of the time. Each of these stories, in Gilbert's hands, adds crucial dimensions to our understanding of masculinity the 1950s. No longer will this era be seen solely in terms of the conformist man in the gray flannel suit or the Marlboro Man.

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Editorial Reviews

American Historical Review

"There is much to appreciate here, including a thoughtful analysis of the literature on the ''crisis'' of masculinity in American history and some rich details about the debates over postwar conformity and mass culture."

— Stephanie Coontz

Paul S. Boyer
"In Men in the Middle, James Gilbert looks at an array of cultural figures and material from the 1950s that, as a whole, offers an exciting and entertaining illustration of the diversity of public images of masculinity during this period. This boldly revisionist study challenges the popular view that a 'crisis of masculinity' provoked by an increasingly 'feminized' culture constituted, for men, the decade's dominant theme. I warmly recommend this astute and pleasurable new interpretation of an often misunderstood period of postwar American life."
Sharon Ullman
"Informative, entertaining, and overdue, Jim Gilbert's study of masculinity in the 1950s provides an important counterweight to our limited picture of cold war gender roles. Women may have been trapped in Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique, but Gilbert returns us to The Lonely Crowd and 1950s fears that men, caught between John Wayne, Ozzie Nelson, and James Dean, faced their own definitional conundrums. In this carefully drawn study of the many masculine icons available to men in the 1950s, he quietly reminds us that most people get along and do just fine—and that stories of crises often make better copy than historical truth."
Michael Kimmel
"Focusing on several iconic, yet under-appreciated, 50s-era figures, James Gilbert provides a timely corrective to the nostalgia-tainted stereotypes of mid-century masculinity. As confused as they were conformist, as restive as they were resigned to a bland suburban life, they were truly men in the middle. Something was happening, as Dylan would sing, and many of these Mr. Joneses knew just what it was."
American Historical Review - Stephanie Coontz
"There is much to appreciate here, including a thoughtful analysis of the literature on the 'crisis' of masculinity in American history and some rich details about the debates over postwar conformity and mass culture."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226293240
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 7/1/2005
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,517,857
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

James Gilbert is professor of history at the University of Maryland. He is the author of nine books, including Perfect Cities and Redeeming Culture, both published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Read an Excerpt

Searching for Masculinity in the 1950s
The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2005 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-29324-0

Chapter One
Introduction: Men in the Middle

In 1948, shortly after reading about Alfred Kinsey's new book Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, a teenager from Texas wrote to the author, pleading for help. "I know there must be thousand[s] of young boys today who are in the same position and state of mind that I am in and have been for years, ever since I began to understand that life often is a 'hell on earth,'" he volunteered. As if to prompt the sexologist with an analysis, he continued, "I have a great inferiority complex that never gives me any rest." "I am an introvert," he added.

Although he readily found facile psychological language to express his sense of isolation and awkwardness, the boy never did reveal to Kinsey his problem: just that being a boy and growing up was difficult and confusing and disorienting in what Garry Wills has called "John Wayne's America." As much of Kinsey's other correspondence reveals, and the intense interest in masculinity during the following decade underscores, the boy was not alone. Growing up in the 1950s, if not always absurd, as Paul Goodman described it, was nonetheless agitated by conflict and uncertainty, but above all, by a sense of rapid, puzzling change.

There were and are many "1950s," a decade of American history that continues to evoke particularly vivid memories and strong opinions-my own included. It is the first era of American history to have a memory recorded by television, and the first to inspire nostalgic sitcoms about these pioneering days in the same medium. The yearning for such seductive times, with its inventive music, movies, dress, fashion, cars, and pop culture, has a distinctly youthful cast to it, as if this were an age of cultural adolescence, when society itself relentlessly focused on the joys and hardships and the inventive new ways of growing up to be American, white, and middle class. Encouraged by an obsessive attention to generational experience, whether in the sinister guise of juvenile delinquency or the sentimentalized fads of teenage romance, the 1950s have often appeared to be, primarily, about the perils and prospects of becoming an adult and particularly about growing up to be masculine or feminine.

There are, of course, a great many problems with such a picture, not the least of which is the notion of the decade itself as a useful historical construct. For what is sometimes remembered as characteristic of a broad period may have been true only briefly, if at all. And usually it is confined to a particular group. What most Americans "remember" about the 1950s probably happened, if at all, in two short periods: from after the war to around 1953 (the most intense period of the cold war) or between 1953 and 1957. This middle half-decade corresponds exactly with my own years in high school. I am, thus, doubly wary, as a historian writing with an uncertain memory about a period I lived through and necessarily reluctant to universalize my particular interpretation, and a participant alert to the possibility of distortion by the "happy days" industries of contemporary culture.

In fact, this book is written as something of an endeavor to discover the place of my own "fifties" in a larger and more complex context, especially within the sharp contour of conflicting definitions of gender. Almost always visible behind the depictions of those halcyon days of a culture coming of age were the nagging problems of growing up, of becoming a young man in a time of uncertain and changing concepts of masculinity-of celebrating and aspiring to the very roles that youth defined itself against. Indeed, in the 1950s, there was an enormous popular and professional literature on gender, either openly directed to concepts of masculinity or sometimes imbedded in discussions only thinly disguised by the invocation of the generic "man" when the subject was quite clearly just men-and white, middle-class men at that.

Most of that literature about adolescent and adult men was directed at or written about the special problems of middle-class men. Although there is a huge contemporary proscriptive/descriptive dialogue about femininity, that is not my topic except insofar as it highlights the conversation about masculinity. I believe that the 1950s were unusual (although not unique) for their relentless and self-conscious preoccupation with masculinity, in part because the period followed wartime self-confidence based upon the sacrifice and heroism of ordinary men. Historians have found concern and even the evidences of a "male panic"-intense uncertainties about masculine identity-in almost every era of American history. But the 1950s appear to hold a special place in this ongoing discussion largely because sociologists and historians began at that moment to define the basic notions of social character and to isolate masculinity as a subject for contemporary study within this new category. To them, history appeared to be a process of evolving psychological states and character types. Thus increased attention to the history of social character occurred in a context of considerable flux and concern about problems of gender identity.

Historians today use the term "male panic" to denote a time when men self-consciously rebel against real or imagined "feminization" developing within the workplace, public spheres, and/or domestic relationships. Since the end of the nineteenth century, the symptoms of this anxiety have usually been signaled by an outpouring of literature and expert advice about how to reconstitute masculinity on a new plane, to find or create new models of masculine vigor and assertion outside of, or in defiance of, threatening changes in work or family relationships. "Real masculinity" might be achieved through some sort of actual or (increasingly in the modern era) vicarious experience and emulation: warfare, sport, or identification with mythical heroes of literature, films, and other formats of popular culture. Certainly, such apprehensions and their cultural manifestations were typical of the 1950s. For example, they were mustered in the anxious "techno language" of atomic Armageddon as well as in the more benign parades of President Eisenhower's patriarchal platitudes. Often, a tough-guy masculinity was the source of language and metaphors in foreign policy discussions where clichés from western films served as descriptions of the strengths of American determination and the character of our response to threats. These publicly held assumptions about masculinity probably intensified the "lavender scare" that resulted in firing hundreds of suspected homosexuals in government service after 1950. But what made this period so animated was, in fact, a real conflict between an assumed norm of masculinity and new forms of masculinity based upon notions of companionship and cooperation within the family and workplace. The absurdity of growing up in the 1950s was heightened by the reluctance-the downright opposition-of a great many cultural spokesmen to accept the changes occurring in American society. Often they interpreted such developments as a threat to masculinity. But at the same time there were dissenting, clear voices, proposing alternative constructions of gender that saw opportunity in those same changes. Somehow we have lost sight of these positive accents.

In fact, the 1950s were host to a number of remarkable social and cultural transitions that became highly visible and often controversial during this era. Several of these also had implications for masculinity. While it is well known that a revived civil rights movement began its highly successful assault on legal obstacles to racial equality in this period, there were other quieter integrations that profoundly reshaped American society. One of these lowered the barriers erected to keep Catholics out of the mainstream of American society. This transformation was signaled vividly by the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, a contest in which masculine vigor became the watchword of the candidate's identity. Another advance was the elimination of some of the corrosive elements of anti-Semitism, such as quotas in higher education. If nothing else, these transitions had the effect of creating the possibility for more diverse role models for middleclass Americans and for opening middle-class status to excluded others, even if African Americans gained entrance only at the margins.

Responses to other important social changes in the period greatly complicated the debates over masculinity. Indeed, at times, gender became the language invoked to explore the significance of these changes. By understanding the importance of this central metaphor, we can understand the 1950s from a new perspective. Broadly speaking, issues of masculinity linked discussions of conformity, mass consumption, and mass culture. Gender anxiety infiltrated this critical literature and redefined these subjects by providing immense energy and a seeming timeliness. A vast and widely read critical literature emerged around social and cultural conformity, the censure of suburban life, and the condemnation of mass culture. A fundamental element of each critique revealed fears of masculine decline. Indeed, worry about masculinity supplied more than just metaphors and arguments. It was sometimes the essential inspiration for the critique in the first place. To put this complex argument as simply as possible, the effects of conformity, suburban life, and mass culture were depicted as feminizing and debasing, and the proposed solution often lay in a renewal of traditional masculine vigor and individualism.

This gendering of modern mass culture, consumption, and conformity had older roots. There were many versions of this idea drawn from traditional descriptions of culture associated with women to the outright conclusion that modern culture was feminizing. For example, in his seminal critique of mass culture in 1953, the radical social and literary critic Dwight Macdonald declared that the audience for mass culture had become passive consumers. Borrowing from a resentful and stereotyped vocabulary describing women, this argument lamented that women were easily manipulated; they suffered infantile regression and engaged in a sentimental worship of motherhood. And the addict of mass culture was all this and more. Much earlier, Thorstein Veblen had argued something of the same thing about the relationship of women to leisure and consumption. In his famous critique of the late nineteenth century, Theory of the Leisure Class, he wrote that a woman was "even required to consume largely and conspicuously-vicariously for her husband or other natural guardian. She is exempted, or debarred, from vulgarly useful employment." She was passive and controlled.

And even before this, as Victoria de Grazia has demonstrated, marketable objects carried sexual connotations to such an extent that one could argue the adage "Consumption, thy name is woman." In fact, however, this gendering of consumption, she notes, came from long-standing divisions of labor and the separation of household and workplace into separate, gendered spheres.

The contemporary import of this gendering of consumption and mass culture was related to the vast expansion of consumerism after World War II in the United States and the appearance of a new form of consumer society. There were many responses to this revolution, what Lizabeth Cohen deems the "Consumers' Republic." But most remarkable was the explosion of an acerbic and dismissive literature denouncing, on moral and economic grounds, the new expansion of consumerism, and with it, the gradual evolution-amounting to a moral revolution of sorts-toward acceptance of mass consumption as essential for social well-being. With a hefty rise in real, disposable income between the late 1940s and 1950s, American families spent their way into new lifestyles, in suburbs, new shopping malls, transported by bicolored and overdesigned automobiles. It was this remarkable increase in objects and their radical design that redefined economic, social, and psychological relationships-the substance of what Gary Cross calls the "All-Consuming Century." Inevitably, these developments in middle-class lifestyles provoked a critical literature deploring the decline of older values associated with work and individualism-and masculinity-and the rise of a feminized mass culture.

The literature and speech that carried this critique was powerful and widespread, the stuff of best-seller lists, conferences, and magazine exposés. What made these negative assessments powerful and abiding was, in part, the serious purpose of the public intellectuals who articulated them and their penetrating and radical style. By public intellectual I refer to the scientists, theologians, academics, and political and social commentators who struggled to understand the profound changes in American society after World War II and who, at the moment, commanded considerable attention and prestige. In many cases, these public commentators sounded the alarm over what they discovered. They worried about the new emphasis in American culture on domesticity and the changes in the workplace toward larger white-collar bureaucracies. They sometimes even feared that the younger generation would be inadequate to the challenges of the cold war. They proved to be especially suspicious of new techniques of socially and psychologically engineered cooperation. They worried about the impact of mass culture as it impinged through its very pervasiveness upon intellectual freedom and individual identity. They constructed a general critique of mass consumer society based upon an implicit contrast with the traditional American values of individualism and personal autonomy. And in high culture they often preferred a tough, hard-edged, and sometimes inaccessible modernism.

Sociologist C. Wright Mills, himself an important public intellectual, devoted a lengthy analysis to the nature of this outpouring of social criticism in modern American society. "The intellectual," he wrote, "ought to be the moral conscience of his society, at least with reference to the value of truth, for in the defining instance, that is his politics." Mills suggested that the function of the critic was, itself, being undermined by the same processes and powers that established the predominance of mass culture. But fellow radical Irving Howe disagreed. The role of the public intellectual, he wrote, had emerged even stronger after World War II, for "capitalism in its most recent stage has found an honored place for the intellectuals."

Historian Richard Hofstadter agreed that the role of public intellectual in the 1950s was extraordinary. In one short paragraph, he managed to suggest how this group of writers had come to dominate American discourse and the distinctive tone they had lent this discussion:

In social criticism, professional jeremiads like Vance Packard become bestsellers; and more serious writers like C. Wright Mills, who compulsively asserted the most thoroughgoing repudiation of American life in its every aspect, are respectfully reviewed and eagerly read. David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd, which can be taken as a depressing account of what the American character has become, is the most widely read book in the history of sociology, and William H. Whyte's mordant analysis of The Organization Man is read everywhere by organization men.

Public intellectuals operating either as independent writers or as academics published an array of widely read critical, analytical literature in the 1950s. Their focus repeatedly returned to the corrosive properties of the new mass culture and consumer society, and their consequences for postwar society. As this literature of hesitation and rejection etched its signature upon the decade, caricaturing American society as a world peopled by conformist and self-effacing "dads" unable to communicate with their sons and afraid to confront their bosses or their wives and "moms," it produced the impression that American society suffered as much as it enjoyed the fruits of prosperity. Yet here we must pause. For this literature obscured other voices that proposed, in one form or another, some sort of positive acceptance of that new world. Such accommodationist voices have been, by and large, missing from our accounts of the 1950s. But they were strong and credible at the time. Indeed, their acceptance of the world denounced elsewhere as "other directed," "conformist," or "mass" simply intensified the conflict between possibilities.


Excerpted from MEN IN THE MIDDLE by JAMES GILBERT Copyright © 2005 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Men in the Middle
2. Crisis and the History of Masculinity
3. Lonely Men: David Riesman and Character
4. A Feeling of Crisis: The 1950s
5. “Sex Is Sex”: Alfred Kinsey and the Report That Shook the World
6. “My Answer”: Billy Graham and Male Conversions
7. The Ozzie Show: Learning Companionate Fatherhood
8. Mendacity: Men, Lies, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”
9. The Gender of High Culture
10. Getting Used to Women: Perspectives on Masculinity Crisis

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