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Rutgers University Press
Happy Days and Wonder Years: The Fifties and the Sixties in Contemporary Cultural Politics

Happy Days and Wonder Years: The Fifties and the Sixties in Contemporary Cultural Politics

by Daniel Marcus


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780813533919
Publisher: Rutgers University Press
Publication date: 03/10/2004
Pages: 280
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Daniel Marcus is an assistant professor in the department of communication at Wayne State University. As a member of the Paper Tiger Television collective, he edited ROAR! The Paper Tiger Guide to Media Activism.

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Excerpt from Happy Days and Wonder Years: The Fifties and the Sixties in Contemporary Cultural Politics by Daniel Marcus

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On July 23, 1999, a small plane piloted by John F. Kennedy, Jr., disappeared off the coast of Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts. For the next several days the nation was treated to a media spectacle of the first order. The major broadcast networks interrupted their regular schedules of programming to cover the search effort for hours on end. The cable news networks offered twenty-four-hour daily coverage. Television specials were quickly assembled that told the story of Kennedy's life-his birth immediately following his father's election to the presidency in 1960; his years in the White House and famous salute to his father's casket; his reemergence as a celebrity lawyer and journalist. Television coverage also included the public response to Kennedy's disappearance and death-the vigil and shrine constructed outside his New York City apartment; reporters' speculation about whether he would have run for political office; noted historians' analyses of the role of the Kennedy family in the nation's history. The following week, news magazines and tabloids alike featured Kennedy on their covers.
The extent to which the display was actually representative of a profound regard for John F. Kennedy, Jr., among the public is impossible to gauge. In contemporary America, it is often useless to try to distinguish outpourings of deeply held public emotion from ephemeral responses to media coverage that is expertly designed to provokesenses of familiarity, sorrow, and catharsis at the death of a celebrity. Both the media attention and the public response attest, however, to the discursive power of politically minded nostalgia. The Kennedy presidency and family saga continued to generate strong affective response in the late 1990s, forty years after John Kennedy's assassination. Many Americans seemed ready to measure their hopes for the nation by the possibility of a symbolic return to an era that most citizens could not remember in any direct, personal way.
This book examines the debate over the American past that has pervaded popular culture and national politics since the 1970s. For much of that decade, nostalgia pervaded popular culture; since the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980, various political figures, parties, and movements have drawn upon this nostalgia to generate usable narratives of post-World War II national life. They have relied upon representations of the country's cultural and political past to provide historically rooted justifications for their own present-day politics.
In post-World War II America, popular culture and political discourse have, in fact, become interlaced-working together to shape collective understandings of the national experience. This book argues that the marshaling of themes and symbols from the repository of popular culture emerged in the early 1980s as a primary way for political agents to shape (and reshape) public memories according to their own needs. This emergence complements a more traditional use of explicitly political iconography (such as the images of former presidents) in the fashioning of the American past. The book asserts that a key factor in the shaping of these politically charged public memories has been the debate about the significance of the 1950s and 1960s for contemporary political and social life in the United States.
The 1950s and 1960s have had such a powerful hold on the public imagination because they are so easily viewed in dichotomous ways. The 1950s are depicted as an era of American global dominance, personal security, and economic prosperity, but also as a time of stultifying social convention, racism, and widespread denial of national problems. The 1960s, conversely, are seen by their critics as a time marked by social unrest and chaos, the trauma of the Vietnam War, and the failure of Great Society programs, and by their defenders as a time of energetic idealism, personal liberation, and vibrant popular culture. The decades' continued iconic power is strengthened by their concurrence with the childhood and youth of the Baby Boom generation, and with the twin emergences and ascendancies of television and rock and roll.
Greil Marcus has written that in the 1950s Americans "exchanged real life for an idea of normal life," and that this normative fantasy is what survives in the nation's idea of the Fifties. Because the Fifties always operated at an imaginary level, their norms have been able to maintain a hold on America's fantasy life, to be resuscitated in conservative discourse and popular culture. The children of the 1950s, meanwhile-the Baby Boom generation-have held a special place in the nation's idea of its future, as Lawrence Grossberg has maintained.
The generation that could redeem the sacrifices of World War II would be seen eventually as rejecting the Fifties vision of normal life in favor of political rebellion and social experimentation in the 1960s, challenging the nation's orientation toward a rewarding future. The political and cultural fallout of such challenges would come to obsess both adherents to and opponents of Sixties social movements and the counterculture for decades, and provide cogent ways to understand trajectories of personal lives, social groups, political parties, and national history.
The postwar era of American life has been represented through a wide range of forms, from family stories to popular films and television series. The meanings of the Fifties and the Sixties, however, do not circulate in the media only in long narrative formats, such as television comedies, film dramas, and major political pronouncements. Indeed, the cultural power of social definitions and representations may be shown by the offhand reference, the demonstrated assumption of a common set of understandings. Advertisements, newscasts, comedy routines, and other prevalent forms of communication in television all provide reminders of what constitutes group, public, and national memories. Madison Avenue campaigns and routinized television production practices contribute to the density of the representations of the past, a density that helps to define the common historical sense of the nation. The proliferation of this cultural shorthand diffuses historical understandings and group memories throughout society. The wide variety of sources regarding the 1950s and 1960s contributes to the sense of continued relevance of times that continually recede further into the past. Although a number of cultural trends have derived from these decades, and a few highly visible political figures have issued major statements centered on these historical understandings, most of the discussion of the 1950s and 1960s comes from smaller efforts-the single film, the op-ed newspaper article, the song lyric that emerges from the larger social conversation. In particular, the pervasive references to these decades in popular culture has promoted the use of nostalgic themes in politics. The heterogeneity of sources about the Fifties and the Sixties strengthened the legitimacy of political discourse in the 1980s and 1990s that based its claims on definitions of national experience in the previous generation.
Popular culture has confirmed the validity of nostalgic themes in politics; the political emphasis on nostalgia during the Reagan administration in turn inspired filmmakers, television producers, and writers to revisit the recent past in their work, to assert their own visions of the past. These treatments of the past create linkages between different facets of the decades under discussion, to create a sense of a unified whole, an encompassing treatment of national experience. The broader definitions of the Fifties and the Sixties become webs of meaning that advance the interests of various social and political groups. Political conservatives treat the 1950s as a time of stable family structures centered on the heterosexual nuclear family, which they believe gives their contemporary family and sexual policy preferences historical sanction; fans of the Grateful Dead often associate their musical preference with steadfast loyalty to Sixties countercultural values of communality, antimaterialism, and social experimentation. These types of social forces engage in a continual process of definition and redefinition, by linking their own memories to wider concepts and representations. As they lay claim to powerful political symbols, social allegiances, and cultural legacies, they invite other groups to share the same sense of the previous decades of American experience. The past's relation to the present is daunting in its complexity; the combining of particular elements into coherent chains of meaning allows people to locate their society in history, and themselves within that society.
To understand how memory functions in this social interplay, we need to distinguish its various levels. In the terminology of this book, "personal memory" belongs to an individual, who mixes images and meanings derived from direct experience with individualized consumption of mediated information. Personal memories combine with institutionalized discourse to create "group memory," which circulates within a social group to convey senses of shared experience and identity.
Diverse groups vie for public attention and acceptance; the ability of a group to establish its memory as a widely held "public memory" is a key act of social power. By establishing its memory as relevant to the wider polity, a group succeeds in placing its interests on the national agenda. The construction of public memories provides opportunities for the creation of shared allegiances and understandings, although always subject to competing memories from other groups.

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