era was summed up in the comforting slogan so soothingly repeated
by the solid majority of Americans, but-and this significant
fact is forgotten-heard with teeth-grinding frustration by the
rest: 'I like IKE.'"
has always seemed to provide an outlet for the weird, the different,
and the malcontented. In a general way, that meant that a dissatisfied
city dweller in the 19th century could pack his family up in
a wagon and head out West. But it also meant that anyone dissatisfied
with the status quo had an outlet to do his or her own thing.
When Roger Williams fell out with the Puritans of Massachusetts,
Rhode Island was born; when John Humphrey Noyes envisioned every
man being married to every woman, the Oneida community was founded;
and when Eugene V. Debs viewed the mainstream political parties
as unrepresentative, the Socialist Democratic party was formed.
course mainstream America didn't like these non-conformists,
and never missed an opportunity to repress, jail, or snuff them
out. Nonetheless, the ideas of these small bands of renegades
slowly seeped into the culture, leaving their influence on the
next decade or generation.
Betsy Blankenbaker's New York in the Fifties drops in on one
feisty group of dissidents who traded the suburbs, big cars,
and fast food of middle America for be-bop jazz, free love,
and an allegiance to the written word. Based on Dan Wakefield's
book of the same name, the film focuses on the life and times
of a number of poets, artists, and musicians caught in a whirlwind
of drunkenness, discovery, and radical politics. New York in
the Fifties not only captures a unique place and time, but also
offers the missing link between the "silent generation"
and the counter culture of the sixties.
and company were ready to trade in the American Dream for something
richer and wilder than business degrees, corporate jobs, and
families, and New York promised a taste of the forbidden. Hailing
from middle class backgrounds in middle America, Columbia, the
beatniks, and the club scene must have seemed like a lethal
dose of salvation. Here, one met at the White Horse Tavern,
drank too much, and argued about characters in Hemingway and
Faulkner books. Here, one could watch Kerouac read at the Vanguard,
catch Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot, or sit in on lectures
by C. Wright Mills or Mark Van Doren.
of the fascinating aspects of New York in the Fifties is that
Wakefield and his friends formed a clique that existed separately
from the beatniks. Indeed, the Columbia crowd didn't even like
the beats. One group valued educational institutions; the other
got kicked out of them. One labored over the written word; the
other believed the first draft was the best. One found New York
a great adventure; the other searched America's highways for
new experiences. "
I resented being labeled because
of my age first as 'silent' and suddenly as 'beat,'" wrote
Wakeman, "when my own life and work
had little in
common with the life or literary style exemplified by what Seymour
Krim called Kerouac's 'non-stop gush.'"
York in the Fifties paints a black and white portrait of a rich
historical moment that leaves the viewer wistfully thinking,
"Wouldn't it be fun to travel back to a time that worshipped
the written word and cherished be-bop jazz?" But nostalgia
is a dangerous drug. It tempts one to juxtapose one's own era
against a golden, and untouchable, era of the past. The 1950s
only come out better if one leaves out McCarthy, the birth of
the modern conservative movement, the H-bomb, and Pat Boone.
Still, it's fun to take a short respite by watching New York
in the Fifties .
D. Lankford, Jr.