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Jhe 1950s did not get good press. In the United States, the decade has long been synonymous with a retreat into political and social conservatism after the upheavals of World War II. Senator McCarthy and his House Committee on Un-American Activities are the obvious example, but there are many others. Women who had taken men’s jobs during hostilities gathered again in bedroom suburbs to nestle, wear pointy bras and baggy skirts, and raise the next generation of patriotic Americans. Black servicemen who had fought alongside their white compatriots in Europe found themselves returning to an isolated south where they had to sit in the back of the bus. The 1950s, or more accurately the period from 1946 to 1963, marked what Norman Mailer at the time called the “years of conformity and depression”.

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Except that wasn’t the case, or at least not for everyone. As James Gaines shows in this eye-opening study, beneath the surface of postwar America’s Pleasantville lay all kinds of resentment and denial. Everywhere he looks, Gaines finds individuals who have insisted on marching to their own drums, even when it has brought them into direct and even dangerous conflict with the newly oppressive status quo. In doing so, it shines a light on a range of underground movements addressing everything from race relations to labor feminism to non-binary sexuality.

It begins with Harry Hay, the British-born activist who was gay at a time when neither the political left nor right would have a truck with gay people. (Gaines gives a shocking example: when the concentration camps were liberated by the Allies, they did not free all the prisoners with pink triangles. Those who had been convicted in the Nazi courts for flirting with another man had to serve their sentence, with no credit for time served.) Hay was very conflicted himself. At first, he married a “boy’s girl” on the advice of a psychiatrist and adopted two daughters in an effort to “cure” himself. It was only later that he started to go against the grain until, at the age of 38 in 1950, he created the Mattachine Society to defend the rights of homosexuals.

The larger point here is that there was nothing simple or obvious about being a progressive in the 1950s. Hay’s campaign brought him into direct conflict with his former Communist Party comrades, who declared that homosexuality was not only “deviant” and “perverse”, but, even worse, an expression of “bourgeois decadence”. The Mattachine Society itself became divided between conservatives who wanted to steer it in the direction of A.A. (at one point it was going to be called Bachelors Anonymous) and those who were increasingly persuaded of the need for direct political action. Gaines sees his job not as refining Hay’s story, matching it to one form or another, but emphasizing its idiosyncrasies instead. It is, he suggests, in the stumbling quality of Hay’s journey that we see the real heroism, two decades before the Stonewall riots and gay liberation made it simpler, if not exactly easier, to be proud and proud.

The Fifties: An Underground History by James R Gaines review – a different take on the decade |  history books

Gaines’ great skill is in using individual life stories, with all their messy contradictions, to dislodge ingrained narratives about life in post-war America. Particularly skillful is its pairing of two thinkers who have never met but whose writings about the fragility of the natural world echo in eerie ways. Rachel Carson was the popular science journalist whose lyrical tale of American coastal wildlife The Sea Around Us (1951) was serialized in The New Yorker and sat on the New York Times bestseller list for 86 weeks. Norbert Wiener, on the other hand, was the mathematical prodigy at MIT whose pioneering work in guiding weapons helped lead to Allied victory in World War II.

Starting from radically different places, Carson and Wiener realized that humanity was terrifyingly close to self-destruction. Carson’s last book was the apocalyptic Silent Spring (1962), in which she argued that America’s reliance on chemical pesticides was poisoning the ecosystem on which all life depended. Wiener, on the other hand, published a letter under the title A Scientist Rebels in the Atlantic Monthly in 1947, in which he warned against the government’s militarization of scientific research and announced his refusal to participate in projects that could lead to nuclear proliferation. Both Carson and Wiener were pilloried for their seemingly abrupt shifts in thought, and both died before they had any inkling that their drastic shifts in heart would mark the beginning of the modern environmental movement.

Gaines is a former editor of three magazines – Time, Life and People – whose titles, taken together, provide the key elements of his interwoven narrative history. By focusing on the experience of historical actors who move around the world, he constructs a narrative imbued with the complexity of lived experience. The result may not be easy to read, but it is infinitely rich.

The Fifties: An Underground History by James R Gaines is published by Simon & Schuster (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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