Mid 20th Century American Culture Recommendations
August 27, 2013 1:31 PM   Subscribe

I am interested in the time period right before WWII (late 30's) up to the Counterculture (Mid 60's). I would like some cultural recommendations from that period. I am interested in books (fiction and nonfiction), movies, tv shows, and music that was either created in that time period or takes place in that time period. Any recommendations would be appreciated!
posted by R.F.Simpson to Media & Arts (29 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Mad Men
posted by exogenous at 1:33 PM on August 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

For music, a good starting place might be the playlists of a couple of video games that extensively mined the period: Fallout 3 and Bioshock.
posted by jbickers at 1:36 PM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is the classic film noir period (roughly early '40s to late '50s), much of which was based on contemporary crime fiction (especially Raymond Chandler). My own best-of list would include Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, The Maltese Falcon, Night and the City, The Killing, and Touch of Evil.
posted by scody at 1:42 PM on August 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

My parents were born in the early 40s and both really like the box sets put out by Time Life Music.
posted by jabes at 1:43 PM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

The Apartment

Revolutionary Road (link is to book but there's also a film)

The Pub-D-Hub channel has a lot of great old TV shows from that time period.
posted by JanetLand at 1:45 PM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Those decades are so different and distinct.

The 30s were all about the Depression, and your movies were mostly escapism. Busby Berkeley stuff, or My Man Godfrey, The Thin Man, or anything with William Powell.

The 40s were more war oriented. Casablanca, Mrs Minniver, The Best Years of Our Lives. Or even Meet Me in St. Louis. My dad tells a story about when Judy Garland sings "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" how everyone in the theater in Pittsburgh just bawled because so many folks were away in the war.

The fifties were things like The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (movie and book). All About Eve, Three Faces of Eve, or later in the decade, The Long Hot Summer, where Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman steam up the screen. These are about finding one's place in the world and about how you have an obligation to do more than just get by. A Place in the Sun is just superb for this. (But so dreary and sad at the same time.)

The sixties are bifurcated. Psycho, The Manchurian Candidate, Dr. Strangelove at the early part of the decade, and Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy and Five Easy Pieces at the end of it. The first part of the the sixties is the realization that things aren't right, there's a cold-war pall over everything and we're disquieted. The end of the sixties is in our faces, young people are rebelling, they're not going to go along with the plan.

1930s Books: Grapes of Wrath, Rebecca (the movie is good too), Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries, P.G. Woodhouse stories.

1940's Books: Animal Farm, Diary of A Young Girl-Anne Frank, Camus-The Stranger and The Plague, Farewell my Lovely-Raymond Chandler, Member of the Wedding.

1950s Books: Catcher in the Rye, Farenheit 451, Lolita (heartbreaking), The Invisible Man-Ralph Ellison, Breakfast at Tiffany's, On The Beach.

1960s Books: To Kill a MockingBird, A Clockwork Orange, In Cold Blood, Valley of the Dolls, Rosemary's Baby, Silent Spring, Autobiography of Malcolm X, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Franny and Zooey.

That's a decent start.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:08 PM on August 27, 2013 [8 favorites]

Difficult to narrow down, but following up on scody's recommendation:

Paul Fussell's Doing Battle: The Making of a Sceptic and Eugene Sledge's With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa are unflinching looks at what WW2 was like for the average combat soldier - they demolish "Greatest Generation" cant and each is a one volume explanation of why despair and nihilism (much of it subconscious or busily denied) undergirds so much mid-century American culture.

Watch Act of Violence along with it - I can't think of another noir that so pointedly addresses WW2 and its shadow over post-1945 optimism and prosperity. Studs Terkel's The Good War is also a smart, engrossing look at how the war and its aftermath affected average Americans.

Tangetially related is Tom Vanderbilt's Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America - an entertaining introduction to the waste, paranoia, and sheer screaming insanity of the Cold War. Its vestiges are all around us.
posted by ryanshepard at 2:08 PM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

They're quite a project, and they're actually about an earlier period, but I'd recommend John Dos Passos's sweeping USA Trilogy for its scope and perspective on early twentieth-century America. They were first published in the 30s, but were written during the late 1920s.

A couple of rather cynical, but quite good novels about American media and literary culture set roughly in the 1950s-1960s period: Gilbert Sorrentino's Imaginative Qualities of Actual
and Stanley Elkin's The Dick Gibson Show.

Another pair of good late-1940s examples of film noir: The Third Man and Out of the Past. The Third Man especially is about the sometimes-neglected immediate aftermath of WWII.

For an excellent and rather curious 1950s noir film, try the film version -- not the book! -- of Kiss Me Deadly. It's sort of the darkest elements of the 1950s wrapped in a deliberately seedy, sometimes surreal noir plot. You might also try From Here to Eternity.

Similarly, Thomas Pynchon's novel The Crying of Lot 49 distills a lot of the feeling of the mid-1960s in California in a weird and comical plot. It's much more accessible than the author's reputation (and other works) might suggest.

Though I personally feel the film has not aged well, Bonnie and Clyde is interesting as an example of the 1960s counterculture trying to reappropriate what the makers seem to see as elements of radical or counterculture from the 1930s.

One of the better time capsules of the early 1960s is, oddly enough, The Twilight Zone, which was a socially-conscious show and explores not only atomic age phobias but also a kind of postwar progressive humanism, the philosophy of the show's leading light, Rod Serling.

Comic strips can be useful as well for an inside view of the popular culture of the periods you mention. Vintage continuities of L'il Abner and Pogo tend to hit social and cultural issues of their periods through humor and satire; George Herriman's Krazy Kat is sort of in a world of its own, an example of how mass culture of the 1930s could be high culture, but another of his strips, the largely forgotten The Family Upstairs (also called The Dingbat Family, does interesting stuff with apartment living with a very formulaic structure. A lot (but not all) of these ought to be available in collections through your library or can even be found in online archives and fora in quasi-legal and sometimes even legal ways!
posted by kewb at 2:31 PM on August 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

A lot of good suggestions so far.

For a basic look at American middle class life during the fifties and early sixties in the movie that is more or less realistic, I would recommend Picnic starring William Holden and Kim Novak; Some Came Running with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin; and The Manchurian Candidate with again Frank Sinatra. While the first two are focused more on small town life while the third is focused on politics, I enjoy watching all three for their realistic depictions of festivities. Picnic is set around the Labor Day holiday celebration, Some Came Running's climax takes place during an evening at a carnival on Main Street, and The Manchurian Candidate's climax takes place during a political convention. In all three of these movies, it's just fun to kind of let the actors do their thing in the foreground and watch the extras act out regular American activities in the background.

Marty starring Ernest Borgnine is an excellent movie about life in an ethnic neighborhood in NYC during the fifties.

The Best Years of Our Lives starring Frederic March and Myrna Loy is another good look at a small city, this time just after World War II.
posted by Fukiyama at 2:55 PM on August 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Capitol Records' Ultra Lounge albums are really well curated collections of what (probably mostly adult, white, middle-class) people were listening to. They're released quite a few since 1996, but the first 10 or so are (IMO) the best. The first Christmas Cocktails compilation is really good too, if applicable.

You might also be interested in Music for TV Dinners, part I and II - collections of stock musical cues of the sort that would have been used in various Prelinger archive-type ephemera. If I recall correctly, part I is mostly from the 1950s (very Leave-it-to-Beaver/Ren and Stimpy), and part II is mostly from the 1960s.
posted by usonian at 3:05 PM on August 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Billy Lee Brammer's book The Gay Place is excellent, from 1961.
posted by goo at 3:30 PM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

The films of Douglas Sirk: Written on the Wind, Imitation of Life, All that Heaven Allows, etc. They're 50s melodramas, very engaging on a superficial level, but later interpreted as ironic social criticism.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 3:39 PM on August 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

On the Road, Jack Kerouac. Anything by or about Ken Kesey, e.g. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe.
posted by she's not there at 3:50 PM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

For later period, "The Whole Earth Catalog."
And seconding the Brammer as a much-underrated novel.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 3:56 PM on August 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I would spend some time reading up on The Group Theatre. Founded in the 30s by Harold Clurman, Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg (founder of the Actor's Studio) they pretty much invented modern, American acting.

There's an American Masters documentary about them. Also The Fervent Years is a great book about the work they did.

Clifford Odets was one of their main playwrights and his plays - Waiting for Lefty, Paradise Lost, Golden Boy and Awake and Sing are all classic American Drama.

While we're, or I'm, talking theatre you ought to read some Arthur Miller (Crucible, All My Sons) and some Tennessee Williams (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire, Glass Menagerie).

Some Edward Albee (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Zoo Story) and Sam Shepard (Buried Child, Curse of the Starving Class) also ought to be on your list.
posted by brookeb at 5:28 PM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Anything from the Feminist Press' Femmes Fatales: Women Write Pulp imprint.

Rona Jaffe's Class Reunion and the novels she wrote in the 50's and 60's.

Vin Packer
posted by brujita at 5:53 PM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Came to recommend Douglas Sirk, M. Caution beat me to it!
posted by gimonca at 5:53 PM on August 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

The Goldbergs, Amos'n'Andy , The Purple Decades, any number of things by Studs Terkel
posted by IndigoJones at 6:12 PM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am ALWAYS recommending this book here, but that's because it's so well-researched and so interesting about this time period: Gone to Soldiers, by Marge Piercy. It's about WWII and told from the point of view of 10 diferent people, most of whom were American. Great insight into the politics and culture of the time, especially on the left-wing side of things. The same author also wrote Braided Lives, about young women in college in the late Fifties. It's really interesting for its look into the generation between the "Greatest Generation" and the Baby Boomers - it really helped me understand so much about what fueled the women's movement.
posted by lunasol at 10:01 PM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

For novels set in the immediate pre-war period (but written recently) try Alan Furst.
posted by Rash at 11:04 PM on August 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm sure most MeFites could fill you in on movies, books and such, and I know you didn't ask for video games, but I can't help but throw a few ideas your way.

LA Noire comes to mind instantly. It is inspired by film noir movies and is no less than them in quality, in my opinion. It has a beautifully, authentically (mostly) recreated world set in the 1940s, featuring social issues of the time, music, culture, the whole deal. If you're interested in the 1940s era, I strongly recommend playing this game or watching a playthrough of it (with a friend or over YouTube).

The BioShock and Fallout series of games very prominently use music from the era you are interested in. They are both certainly more 'gamey' than LA Noire, which plays out more like an interactive movie. If you are not directly interested in BioShock/Fallout, consider their soundtrack listings at least:

Fallout 3
Fallout: New Vegas
BioShock series
LA Noire
posted by Senza Volto at 12:36 AM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

That era as a whole to me means a lot of jazz. Your time period starts with mostly Swing and Big Band and covers many of the greats of the genre.

Brief (woefully incomplete) list of names (and just one amazing album for those from the era of albums; before that I'd certainly recommend compilations)

Duke Ellington
Charlie Parker
Dizzy Gillespie
Louis Armstrong
Thelonius Monk (Brilliant Corners)
Lennie Tristano (Crosscurrents)
Miles Davis (Kind of Blue)
John Coltrane (Giant Steps)

Going full into the 60s adds Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Pharaoh Sanders, Sun Ra and other Free/experimental jazz artists (though many of these also had significant work in the 50s and many of the above artists continued producing amazing work, etc).
posted by mountmccabe at 5:43 AM on August 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

You should also read The Warmth of Other Suns which chronicles the northern migration of Blacks from the South to Northern Cities. It's a part of history that probably wasn't covered much in any classes you've taken and it really reshaped so much of our country.
posted by brookeb at 7:08 AM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Jason Lutes' Berlin series. Art! Bohemians! Nazis! Jazz! Doomed Romances!
posted by The Whelk at 7:50 AM on August 28, 2013

As Ruthless Bunny said, this is a huge period, with many distinct shifts throughout. This thread should be infinity posts long.

John Updike's first Rabbit novel Rabbit Run captures the late 50s really well in my opinion.

Meanwhile, Ken Burns Jazz, Episodes 5-9 are a great introduction to the Jazz of that era.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:04 PM on August 28, 2013

I loved James Elroy's L.A. Quartet which goes nicely with the movie version of L.A. Confidential and Rockstar's L.A. Noire.
posted by creade at 1:35 PM on August 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I read these three in a row, by chance, and together they give a deliciously funny look into Britain in the 30's -- Maybe follow them with some Nancy Mitford for a chaser?

Cold Comfort Farm
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
With Malice Toward Some
posted by Mchelly at 4:29 PM on August 28, 2013

The Group by Mary McCarthy - Vassar graduates making their way in the 1930s.
The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe - young secretaries making their way in the early 60s.
posted by mippy at 4:34 AM on August 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

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