Register for Forum |  Forum Login |  Forum Control Panel  


“The 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.'”

- Dan Wakefield

America 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.

Of 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.

Wakefield 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.

One 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.'”

New 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 .

Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.

Leota Rosko on June 6th, 2013 at 1:04 am 

Wow, incredible blog layout! How long have you been blogging for? you make blogging look easy. The overall look of your site is wonderful, as well as the content!. Thanks For Your article about New York in the Fifties | Documentary Films .NET .

Post a comment

Name:  (enter something here)
Email:  (and here)
URL:  (but not necessarily here)