Richard Pells: The Peculiar Generation Born During World War II





[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.]

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....

...[W]hat 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....

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....

Few of us...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....

We were supposed to have been raised on rock 'n' roll, hot rods, and drive-in hamburger joints....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....

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....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....

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.


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