The Chronicle Review

The Peculiar Generation

Margaret Bourke-White, Time & Life Pictures, Getty Images

Nancy Lee Botkin, part of the wartime cohort of births, reached the pages of Life magazine in 1947 with her parents, Leroy (left), a graduate student at the U. of Iowa, and Edith.
March 21, 2010

We've all heard about the "greatest generation," which lived through the Depression of the 1930s and won World War II (with a little help from our Russian friends). We've also been subjected to innumerable analyses about the "baby boomers," born in the late 1940s and 1950s, who instigated the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s and have shaped American society ever since.

But what about the people born between the beginning of World War II, in 1939, and its end, in 1945? Those members of a transitionally awkward generation who were too young to have personally experienced the Depression or the war, but too old to have been embroiled in the turmoil on college campuses in the late 1960s. Who were presumably too blasé or sedate to have participated in the battles against the Vietnam War or for the equality of women, much less in the revels at Woodstock. Who came of age in an America that was obsessed with the cold war and was not yet bombarded daily by technological innovations, new waves of immigrants, or cataclysms in the stock market. What contributions, if any, has this generation made to American political and cultural life?

Quite a lot, as it happens. In fact, many in this cohort were responsible for some of the principal transformations—especially in movies, music, and journalism—that have occurred in America over the past 60 years.

The historical impact of my own peculiar generation wasn't immediately apparent to me when I returned to Kansas City, Mo., for the 50th reunion of my high-school graduating class at Southwest High School, the Class of 1959. I was born in 1941, as were nearly all my classmates. We were in grade school during the late 1940s and early 1950s, before entering high school in 1954.

At the time, Southwest regarded itself as one of the premier high schools in the United States. We were among the first beneficiaries of the enormous sums that began to be spent on high schools and colleges in the late 1950s, in the wake of Sputnik, in 1957, and the National Defense Education Act, in 1958. Thus 90 percent of my class of 400 students went on to college—a considerable number to prestigious institutions like Harvard, Rice, Rutgers, Stanford, and Yale Universities and the Universities of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.

Most of us, unlike later generations of undergraduates, never conceived of dropping out to "find" ourselves or discover what we wanted to do. We earned our B.A.'s in four years in an era when the degree was often sufficient for a good job and a successful life. And so (unless, like me, we lingered on into graduate school), we left campus in 1963, before our successors seized administration buildings and the aroma of marijuana and tear gas floated over the Gothic and Georgian spires.

With that sterling if orthodox educational pedigree, what did we accomplish? On the basis of conversations with my classmates, and after reading the biographies they submitted for the reunion's commemorative book, I concluded regretfully that our adult occupations were respectable but hardly remarkable. Among the men, there were the predictable cluster of lawyers, a sprinkling of professors, and a doctor or two. Most of the men, however, had flourished in business, usually as executives of small or medium-size firms. A few of the women pursued careers in primary- or secondary-school education, but the majority said they had concentrated on their families and volunteer work. Almost everyone, male and female, seemed to love playing bridge.

Notably absent were any Wall Street bankers or masters of the corporate universe, major politicians or foreign-policy gurus, media icons or Madison Avenue admen, eminent scientists, filmmakers, musicians, novelists, or playwrights. In short, this was not a group of people who might show up as characters in the television series Mad Men (except, if they were women, as indispensable secretaries) or in one of Tom Wolfe's mordant meditations on how we live now. We seemed to fit the stereotype of a generation that was steady, reliable, and well adjusted, but not one that had substantially changed or influenced America's politics or its culture.

Yet that stereotype is false. The names of those in my generation who have had a profound effect on American life, and on America's image (for better or worse) in the world, are striking.

In no field has our legacy been more consequential than in the movies. Hollywood enjoyed a renaissance in the 1970s in large part because of the films of Francis Ford Coppola (born in 1939), Martin Scorsese (1942), and George Lucas (1944). Among the dominant actors born during World War II are Al Pacino (1940) and Robert De Niro (1943). Pacino and De Niro are the spiritual descendants of Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and James Dean, the first generation of Method actors whose movies we all began to watch in the late 1940s and 1950s. And while Nora Ephron (1941) is not the equal as a director of Coppola or Scorsese, she has become one of America's most successful female filmmakers.

American music during and after the 1960s would be unimaginable without the songs and charisma of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Art Garfunkel, and Paul Simon (all born in 1941) and Barbra Streisand (1942). Similarly, American journalists are still hoping to ascend to the level of culture heroes, uncovering the big story, as Bob Woodward (1943) and Carl Bernstein (1944) did with Watergate. Or maybe they would be satisfied anchoring an evening newscast, preferably if anchors are once again deified, as Tom Brokaw (1940) was in the 1980s and 1990s.

Moviemakers, musicians, and journalists were all inflamed by the crises in American politics in the 1960s and 1970s. But the troubles have not abated in the age of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—conflicts that my generation continues to preside over and argue about. Since 2001, in the midst of these debates, we have produced one presidential candidate (John Kerry, 1943) and two antithetical vice presidents (Dick Cheney, 1941, and Joe Biden, 1942). Meanwhile, Richard Holbrooke (1941), who started his career as a junior Foreign Service officer in Vietnam and helped negotiate the end of the Bosnian civil war, in 1995, is now the special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, with a mission as tortuous as any on the planet.

However famous these people are, our real impact on the tone of American culture and politics has been less glamorous but even more enduring. That influence is rooted in the experiences of our childhoods and adolescences, experiences that rarely conformed to the clichés about American complacency in the 1940s and 1950s.

Despite the notion that postwar America was dominated by men, many of us absorbed our most important views of the world—including the political world—from women, particularly during the early 1940s, when our fathers and uncles were away at the war. My first political memory was of the day that Franklin D. Roosevelt died. I was walking with my mother on a street in Kansas City when a barber left his shop to whisper something to her. She immediately burst into tears. So my deepest remembrance is how profoundly Roosevelt's death affected her, her reaction as emotional as any I myself had in response to the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy.

While our fathers were hard at work in the 1950s making a living to support their families, and rarely at home except in the evenings, our mothers continued to influence how we understood the politics and culture of postwar America. In the spring of 1954, my mother allowed me to stay home from school so I could watch the Army-McCarthy hearings on television. She believed, correctly, that I would learn more from watching Senator McCarthy's brutal performance than from anything I might be taught in class.

Few of us, though, felt the McCarthyite chill that many historians have claimed afflicted American culture in the 1950s. Our nonchalance about McCarthyism was due partly to the fact that we were the last generation who grew up listening to network radio. I can still hear in my mind the nasal voice of Fred Allen skewering the foibles of politicians, the Senator Claghorns who prefigured the pomposities of Joe McCarthy, thereby deflating them in advance. But because we grew up during the most frightening years of the cold war, with the constant fear of nuclear conflagration, we were not soothed by situation comedies or happy endings. Once we graduated to television, we didn't spend much time watching the anodyne escapades of Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It to Beaver, nor were we enthralled by the avuncular pronouncements of Walt Disney. Instead we watched live television dramas like Marty, 12 Angry Men, and Requiem for a Heavyweight, all of which offered a darker view of America's values than the House Un-American Activities Committee, with its campaign to blacklist suspicious actors and playwrights, would have liked.

Our most cherished show-business idols, however, were the new generation of comedians who emerged in the late 1950s—acerbic humorists like Lenny Bruce, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Tom Lehrer, Mort Sahl, and soon Woody Allen. Long before Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, those comics were our reporters and tribunes, satirizing the pretensions of the liberal, well-educated middle class. As Sahl once observed, the typical progressive-minded Unitarian probably believed in the "Ten Suggestions" and would, if he or she were in the Ku Klux Klan, burn a question mark on your lawn.

We were supposed to have been raised on rock 'n' roll, hot rods, and drive-in hamburger joints. Certainly that's the image presented in George Lucas's American Graffiti, his 1973 film about teenagers (like himself) growing up in California to the music and mores of America in the late 1950s and early 60s. Yet for me and many of my friends, the music we admired was jazz—particularly the "cool" jazz of Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and the Modern Jazz Quartet. To us the sound of a muted trumpet, a dissonant saxophone solo, or a rippling piano was the background music for our young, unformed lives.

At the same time, the movies we revered—On the Waterfront, Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden, Splendor in the Grass—reinforced our own sense that our families were dysfunctional, that parents (especially fathers) were distant and ineffectual, and that authority figures of all sorts were not to be trusted. Those insights expanded once we entered college and started reading some of the works of corrosive social criticism published in the 1950s and at the beginning of the 60s—like David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd, William Whyte's The Organization Man, C. Wright Mills's The Power Elite, and Paul Goodman's Growing Up Absurd. What those books suggested was that we might not be revolutionaries, wild ones in black leather jackets, but that we could decide from time to time when to resist the suffocating conformity of the men in gray flannel suits.

It is important, not just for us but for Americans today, to understand how our experiences affected modern America. What we have bequeathed to the country is an innate moderation, a skepticism about movements and ideologies, an agnosticism about the quarrels that summon intense passions in present-day liberals and conservatives. John Kerry, for example, was an eloquent but oddly aloof opponent of the wars in Vietnam and Iraq. When I was protesting the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, as a young instructor at Harvard, I couldn't quite share the fervor of my students. My first child was born during the week of the killings at Kent State University, in 1970; as I was voting to shut our university down, one undergraduate reminded me that I was an "adult," not at heart one of the militant demonstrators.

That feeling of adulthood, of an early-acquired maturity, has been with my generation for a long time. Even during the 1960s, when we listened to the songs of Dylan or Baez, we were more interested in their music than their politics. We were rarely activists or ideologues. And that emotional reserve makes us, even in the midst of America's current crises, unruffled, temperate in conversation and behavior, unmoved by the strident crusades on Fox News or in the left-wing blogosphere. Given our craving to be pragmatic and cool, we have tried to define America's centrist political and cultural style for the past half-century.

And we have an heir, a metaphorical child. For these attributes describe not only my own generation, but also the public traits and private instincts of Barack Obama. In many ways, President Obama—with his aura of ironic detachment from the political furies surrounding him—is a throwback to an earlier time. He reminds me of Henry Fonda in the 1957 movie version of 12 Angry Men: strait-laced, a bit icy, always ration-al, refusing to surrender to the rages or anxieties of his fellow jurors. As an actor, Fonda usually played a calm, laconic hero, a character whom my generation always wanted to emulate. Americans don't have, or don't seem to admire, those types of heroes today. But Obama—whatever his current political difficulties—has an affect that those of us born in the early 1940s, learning to prize a similar psychological reserve, recognize all too well. He exemplifies our strengths and our weaknesses.

So we could use some relief, embodied by Henry Fonda and Barack Obama, from our current political extremism, and some reticence in discussing our present problems. Such restraint might make our political culture healthier and more productive. That is the most valuable contribution those of us who were children in the 1940s and 50s could bequeath to our successors in the 21st century.

Richard Pells is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin. His books include Not Like Us: How Europeans Have Loved, Hated, and Transformed American Culture Since World War II (Basic Books, 1997). His book Modernist America: Art, Music, Movies, and the Globalization of American Culture will be published by Yale University Press in spring 2011.