A feminist—and the bestselling author of The Age of American Unreason—looks back at the last pre-feminist generation of men who supposedly had it all and asks: what exactly did they have?

How fabulous was life for men in the 1950s and early 1960s? How real is the world depicted by a television show like Mad Men: a world where visibly successful males, so long as they supported their families and contributed to their firms' profitability, could have midday liaisons, impregnate ...

See more details below
The Last Men on Top

Available on NOOK devices and apps  
  • NOOK Devices
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK 7.0
  • Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 NOOK 10.1
  • NOOK HD Tablet
  • NOOK HD+ Tablet
  • NOOK eReaders
  • NOOK Color
  • NOOK Tablet
  • Tablet/Phone
  • NOOK for Windows 8 Tablet
  • NOOK for iOS
  • NOOK for Android
  • NOOK Kids for iPad
  • PC/Mac
  • NOOK for Windows 8
  • NOOK for PC
  • NOOK for Mac
  • NOOK for Web

Want a NOOK? Explore Now

NOOK Book (eBook)
BN.com price


A feminist—and the bestselling author of The Age of American Unreason—looks back at the last pre-feminist generation of men who supposedly had it all and asks: what exactly did they have?

How fabulous was life for men in the 1950s and early 1960s? How real is the world depicted by a television show like Mad Men: a world where visibly successful males, so long as they supported their families and contributed to their firms' profitability, could have midday liaisons, impregnate secretaries, and pimp for clients with impunity? In this engaging, witty, and insightful reappraisal, Susan Jacoby challenges both versions of the story—narratives that either romanticize or demonize men's lives back in the good or bad (you choose) old days. She suggests that there were hidden economic and psychological costs that made this "Rat Pack" reality a fantasy, and she also shows why this illusion still holds sway in the worldview of many (including Republicans and social conservatives such as Mitt Romney) who continue to cherish, long for, and advocate for the days when a family lived on the man's paycheck, and the woman stayed at home where she belonged.

Our most unsparing chronicler and impassioned social provocateur, who is always eager to skewer intellectual laziness and cultural myths, comes to the unexpected rescue the last generation of prefeminist men. An electronic dart of wit and insight.

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307908476
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/23/2013
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 64
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

SUSAN JACOBY is the author of ten books, including The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought, Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age, The Age of American Unreason, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, and Half-Jews: A Daughter’s Search for her Family’s Buried Past. She lives in New York City.
Read More Show Less

Read an Excerpt

My father’s generation of men, who came of age during World War II, was defined by work. By that I mean paid work—not the essential but socially invisible unpaid work done by their wives. On Labor Day 1971, President Richard Nixon defined the American work ethic as the belief “that labor is good in itself” but also as the embodiment of the nation’s “competitive spirit.” There was a troubling paradox here for every working man whose main job was bringing home a paycheck. Is doing any job to the best of your ability enough, or do you have to do better in competition with and by comparison with others?
I doubt that the question of whether the very act of work was invested with intrinsic goodness occurred to most of my father’s contemporaries when they were in the prime of their lives. Even if the question did arise, the necessity of working to take care of a family overwhelmed any pointless speculation about whether a job was dignified or undignified, personally fulfilling or barely tolerable. My father was an accountant who had once, he told me late in his life, wanted to become a high school history teacher—before the Depression forced him to drop out of college.
Feminists have described the suppression of women’s worldly ambition as they price they had to pay for a postwar middle-class social covenant in which they were in charge of the home and men were in charge of paying for the home. The men of my father’s generation, however, were largely silent about the covenant’s cost to them. Many struggled with competing demands of home and work just as hard-pressed working mothers do today; the difference is that social convention required the men to keep their mouths shut about whatever they were feeling.
One can only imagine the ridicule that would have greeted a male executive in 1953 if he had written a cri de coeur like Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” an essay in The Atlantic on her decision, in the best interest of her family, to leave a top-level policy job in the State Department for a tenured professorship at Princeton University. “I have not exactly left the ranks of full-time career women,” she acknowledged. “I teach a full course load; write regular print and online columns on foreign policy; give 40 to 50 speeches a year; appear regularly on TV and radio; and am working on a new academic book.” This litany suggests that the “all” in “having it all” is relative. (Even that much turned out not to be quite enough for Slaughter, who took a job as head of the prestigious New America Foundation after her essay was published.)
Slaughter, married to another tenured professor at Princeton, is making luxury choices unavailable to most women or men in this country—now or in the past. So is Facebook’s chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg, who, in her best-selling book Lean In, describes the choice of a “life partner” as “the single most important career decision that a woman makes.” You can have it all, Sandberg says, if you choose a man who wants you to have it all and proves it by sharing responsibility for child-rearing. (Slaughter disagrees; one major point in her essay is that too many women cherish the myth that the right partner will enable them to have it all. This disagreement did not, however, prevent Slaughter from writing a highly favorable review of Sandberg’s book in The New York Times in March. Let no one doubt the potency of the new old-girl network.)
The experience of men who came of age in the 1940s and 1950s indicates that no one can have it all—however ardently that ideal world is desired by both women and men of vaulting ambition and achievement. The notion that men “had it all” because they made all the money while the children were maintained on the back burner at home by the wife represents an extraordinarily unimaginative view of the emotional satisfaction that can, and cannot, be bought.
Both Tom Brokaw’s idealized and idealistic portrait of what he calls the “greatest generation” and the cynical Mad Men, whose male characters are roughly divided between the men who fought in the war and the younger generation born during the Depression, are equally obtuse about the conflicted hearts of the men they portray. Brokaw, known as a hardheaded reporter, abandons any objectivity and skepticism when it comes to the war generation. They are, he says, simply the greatest. “While I am periodically challenged on this premise,” he writes, “I believe I have the facts on my side. . . . They love each other, love life and love their country, and they are not ashamed to say just that.”  Does it really make people “the greatest” simply because they were the right age to participate in what Americans still consider the last good war?
Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, goes to the opposite extreme. Born in 1965, which places him in the post–baby boom cohort known to sociologists as Generation X, Weiner presents male characters who elicit and exhibit little sympathy or empathy. Regardless of their backgrounds, they inhabit an immensely wealthy, white upper-middle-class universe as adults. Their work is lucrative (at least at the top levels), but it could hardly be seen as intrinsically dignified, since the advertising business is dedicated to selling products that, in many instances, are not only unneeded but in some cases positively harmful.
The show’s antihero, Don Draper, although he is rich by the standards of the decade and leads a glamorous life, may occasionally brood about some issue at the office, but he’s always back the next day at his desk, from which he urges the other members of his team to figure out how to continue to sell more of everything from cigarettes (in the wake of the U.S. Surgeon General’s 1964 report providing the first irrefutable evidence that, yes indeed, smoking does cause lung cancer) to new products like diet soda. Don may occasionally betray misgivings about a product or a client with an ironic twist of his mouth (so well suited to convincing everyone from schoolteachers and aspiring actresses that he’s a sensitive guy), but he’s not about to trade in Madison Avenue to become the public relations director for the American Cancer Society.
 Significantly, given the tendency of the American media to ignore class differences, there are no male blue-collar or low-level white-collar characters in the world of Mad Men. The universe of the underpaid and underemployed is represented entirely by women. With the exception of a gay character, who is fired after refusing the advances of a client, the men on this show are rich, powerful white sons of bitches.
Neither the sentimentalization nor the demonization of my father’s generation by today’s media captures the constrained reality of life for blue-collar and ordinary white-collar men of the grateful generation. For that reality, we must turn to works by men closer in age and experience to the heart of the matter.
In 1971, the genius interviewer Studs Terkel, who died in 2008 at ninety-six, captured the real voices of laboring men—and by that I mean white-collar and blue-collar men—in his oral history Working. (Unusually, given that the feminist movement had only recently begun to impinge on the consciousness of Americans in the early 1970s, Terkel also included women in his book, and his interviews underline the fact that in working-class families, the stay-at-home mom was often an economically unrealizable ideal even in the days when Father was thought to know best. The indulgent and somewhat dim-witted dads in Father of the Bride and Father Knows Best represented not a middle-class but an upper-middle-class family ideal.)
Terkel focuses on men like Steve Dubi, born in 1913 and an inspector for forty years in the steel mills that once clogged the South Side of Chicago. He says, “I got nothin’ to show for it. I live in a home the bank has a mortgage on. . . . I own a car the finance people have the title to.” Speaking about his son, a well-known priest and social activist in Chicago, he emphasizes that he “had nothin’ to do with makin’ him what he is. I told you I am nothing. After forty years of workin’ at the steel mill, I am just a number. I think I’ve been a pretty good worker. That job was just right for me. I had a minimum amount of education and a job using a micrometer and just a steel tape and your eyes—that’s a job that was just made for me.”
Whether they lived in the world of Don Draper or Steve Dubi, the last men on top were united by their determination to keep what they had precisely because most of them did not grow up anywhere near the top. Those who went to college on the GI Bill—having emerged from the war in their early twenties—were often the first in their families to obtain a higher education. My father, born in 1914, dropped out of college in 1932, after his father died and left his mother penniless. By the end of the war, he had too many responsibilities to take advantage of the government education subsidy. Discharged from the army at thirty-one with a wife and year-old daughter, he did not have, and would never have, the luxury of thinking about whether he was happy in his work.
I remember Dad standing in our kitchen at 4:30 in the morning in the frigid winter months of tax season. The accountant who once wanted to be a history teacher would often be leafing through some book while gulping down his coffee, because he knew that he would be too tired to read when he returned home after a 14-to-16-hour work day. One might well ask whether men who had to work that hard ever thought of themselves, or should have been thought of by others, as the ones on top.

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Noble.com Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & Noble.com that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & Noble.com does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at BN.com or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & Noble.com and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Noble.com Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & Noble.com reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & Noble.com also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on BN.com. It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)