INNC

Symposium: Coming of Age in the Long 1950s

INNC Symposium (International Network of Nineteen-Fifties Culture) 

Date: June 19, 2024. All welcome! Please register here to access the Zoom link: https://lu-se.zoom.us/meeting/register/u5MkceihrTkrEt1H0a3mX50hPMwleRM092rk

Location: online 

Confirmed keynote speaker: Dr Tamlyn E. Avery, University of Queensland, Australia (author of The Regional Development of the American Bildungsroman, 1900-1950, Edinburgh University Press, 2022) 

The long 1950s in America (c. 1945-67) was an unusually ambiguous moment in which to come of age, a period of immense change, growth, and transformation. The economy was booming, and the general well-being of Americans improved significantly. But at the same time, after the horrors of the Holocaust and World War 2, and with the Cold War brewing in the background, the fifties were also a period of deep apprehension and despair for the future. Perhaps precisely for that reason, the long 1950s was a period in which coming-of-age novels proliferated. From Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in the early 60s, a new generation of novels struggled with the question of how to develop a self in a society where conformity had become the central norm. This era of post-war prosperity, cultural shifts, and ideological changes had a profound impact on literature, culture, and film.  

For our second INNC symposium, we have invited scholars, researchers, and enthusiasts to explore the multifaceted theme of Coming of Age in the long 1950s’ America. We are very pleased to present the following program (full abstracts below):

10.00 (CET) Welcome (Annika J. Lindskog and Sanna Melin Schyllert) 

10.15 Keynote: Dr Tamlyn E. Avery, University of Queensland, Australia. 

11.15 – 13.00 Panel 1:  The Microcosms and Macrocosms of America 

Chair: Annika J. Lindskog 

Dorka Tamas (University of Groningen): 'Post-war American Nonconformism and the Witch Figure in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar'

Joseph Gratale (American College of Thessaloniki): 'The Long 1950’s and Imperial America in Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July'

Florian Pichon (University of Montreal)​​: 'In the Ruins of the Nuclear Ideal: Innocence Lost and Survival in Davis Grubb’s The Night of the Hunter and Charles Laughton’s movie adaptation'

13.00–14.00 Lunch 

14.00 – 15.45 Panel 2: Expressions of Gender and Sexuality  

Chair: Sanna Melin Schyllert  

Ruben Cenamor Pons (Independent): 'A New Sensitive Man Emerges: Alternative Masculinities in Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy (1953)'

Kess Carpenter (Wilfrid Laurier University): '“What Sort of Man Reads Playboy?”: Gender, Heterosexuality, and Reader Letters in Playboy Magazine, 1953-1963' 

John Öwre: Neo-Romanticism and Enchantment in the Cinema of the Long Fifties: Splendor in the Grass (1961) and Night Tide (1961)

15.45 – 16.00 Closing remarks 

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Conference Organizers: 

Annika J. Lindskog, Lund University 

Sanna Melin Schyllert, Nantes University 

 

Abstracts

Dr. Dorka Tamas, 'Post-war American Nonconformism and the Witch Figure in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar'

Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is situated at the peak of McCarthyism in post-war America. The novel starts with the public electrocution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg who were murdered for alleged nuclear spying. Throughout the novel, Plath parallels the breakdown of Esther Greenwood with the electrocution of the Rosenbergs through the metaphor of torture and nonconformism. My presentation considers the novel’s portrayal of nonconformist women and the way in which transgressive gender roles can be interpreted through the witch figure. While the McCarthy witch-hunt was an eradication of political nonconformists and Communists, the gender power dynamics of the Salem witch trials need to be considered in the metaphor of the witch-hunt. In 1953, the year in which the events of The Bell Jar take place, Alfred Kinsey’s report Sexual Behavior in the Human Female was published. The report discussed the sexual behaviours of young white American women and shook American society, suggesting that many young women are sexually active in premarital sex and not so passive receivers of sex as traditional gender roles suggested. In post-war America, sexuality and politics were brought into parallel, sexual nonconformism (promiscuity, homosexuality) was considered common among those labelled as Communists. Similarly, Ethel Rosenberg’s female identity and perceived lack of motherly instinct were at the forefront of the couple’s trial. In The Bell Jar, Esther’s sexual behaviour is often the source of otherness and gender nonconformism. My research looks at the overlaps between politics and sexuality and argues that the historical witch-hunt (revoked during McCarthyism) and the witch figure help in understanding women’s transgression of gender roles. I propose that in The Bell Jar, female sexuality is the real ‘enemy within’, the phrase used by Senator McCarthy on American anti-Communism, and Esther Greenwood and Ethel Rosenberg can be considered metaphorical witches. 

Professor Joseph Gratale, 'The Long 1950’s and Imperial America in Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July'

This paper will consider the broader socio-political developments of the post-World War II period up to the 1960s in the USA.  It will also focus on specific aspects of America’s cultural landscape impacted by those developments with particular attention given to identifying the contours of imperial America and emphasize its ‘coming of age’ as a world power.  As America’s imperial ambitions became manifest, exactly how did individual Americans respond to particular discourses about Cold War dynamics, the militarization of US foreign policy, and America itself?  To this end, this paper will utilize Ron Kovic’s autobiography, Born on the Fourth of July, in order to explore the linkages and disjunctures between his biography and the ideologically charged and politically contentious period of the 1950s and 1960s.  

Florian Pichon, 'In the Ruins of the Nuclear Ideal: Innocence Lost and Survival in Davis Grubb’s The Night of the Hunter and Charles Laughton’s movie adaptation'

“his heart was curiously warm within him with the unreasonable illusion  that he had come home." This sentence, which concludes the third and penultimate chapter of Davis Grubb's novel The Night of the Hunter, may come as a surprise since the place mentioned is terra incognita, and it is from his official home that John Harper has fled. Yet, Rachel Cooper, the strong and independent old woman who welcomes him and his sister Pearl, offers a substitute maternal protection against a family home that has become alien. Between a criminal stepfather, a weak and impressionable mother, and a corrupted father who brings misfortune to his offspring, Grubb's portrayal of the family is far from flattering. This paper aims to offer a multidisciplinary dive, incorporating psychological, symbolic, civilizational, and queer analyses to probe the novel, which has been somewhat overshadowed by Charles Laughton’s popular film adaptation, thereby obscuring the cultural significance of its source material. This exploration aims to illuminate how The Night of the Hunter depicts the process of coming of age within a society where the very fabric of family and safety unravels. By focusing on John and Pearl's journey on their skiff, from innocence to a forced maturity in the face of predatory evil, they navigate the treacherous waters, both literally and metaphorically. Their journey becomes emblematic of the broader experience of American youth during this period, confronting and overcoming the remnants of wartime trauma, societal expectations, and the dissolution of traditional familial structures.

Ruben Cenamor Pons: 'Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy and Masculinities'

There is no denying that the Fifties in the United States were obsessed with the notion of masculinity. Although the hegemonic model of masculinity was clear-cut (a man had to be white, heterosexual, and a white-collar provider), there were some dissonant voices in fiction that defied this one-dimensional definition of masculinity. Still, many of the models provided continued to portray many instances of what Brannon and David (1976) would, years later, define as the four rules of masculinity, namely having status and a big income, displaying toughness and self-reliance, being prone to violence, and avoiding any behavior that could be regarded as unmanly (i.e., display emotions). This problem was also present in the fictional portrayal of adolescence and coming of age. The image of the rebel teenager, embodied by Jim Stark (James Dean) in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), showed a young man who was against the Fifties’ normative masculinity but was, still, very traditional.  Indeed, Jim’s way of being a man was still very much based on the use of violence, the figure of the alpha male (he confronts all other boys of his age and only accepts Plato because the latter cannot defy Jim’s status), and the subduing of women through the relationship he shows towards Judy (the girlfriend he “wins” in a car race) and his mother (whom he hates whenever she attempts to be at the same level of authority of any other man, particularly Jim’s father).  Arguably, there are two reasons for this lack of commitment to a full counter-hegemonic model of masculinity. First, in the Fifties any deviation from the norm that was too explicit could be regarded as a sign of pro-Communism, which could bring about terrible consequences for whoever instigated this attitude. Secondly the intention behind these male characters was to captivate readers and audiences, as their failure to achieve such resonance would render them susceptible to rejection regardless of how alluring their portrayal of manhood may have been. However, there was a play that contested these varieties of traditional masculinity while providing an alluring type of manhood: Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy (1953). The play presents an exploration of the concept of masculinity departing from the violent, sober, non-emotional models of being a man to one that unfurls sensitivity as a banner. The aim of this essay is to examine Tom’s representation of masculinity highlighting how he created a model that is not healthy and egalitarian, but at the same time is alluring by still maintaining some of the positive traits of more “traditional” manhood which are desirable by men. In so doing, this paper will also posit that the portrayal of Tom’s sensitive, more egalitarian masculinity contributed to paving the way for the shift of gender roles and normative masculinity in the 60s and could even, by today's standards, be considered as a model of positive masculinity from which readers of all ages can learn. 

Kess Carpenter: 'Masculinity in letters to Playboy'

Existing Playboy scholarship overlooks the significance of magazine’s audience outside of the bachelor subculture it fathered in the 1950s. In fact, consumers fitting Playboy’s desired readership of white, financially affluent, single men formed only a small percentage of its actual subscribers. This study makes evident that male youth, students, soldiers, sailors, military servicemen, middle- and working- class men, both single and married, as well as young women, made up most of its readership. To date, no historical study has been conducted of reader letters to Playboy, which reveal the magazine’s significance to this audience. This paper argues that young postwar men used Playboy as a guide to inform their own gendered and sexual expectations of women, as well as their behaviours within courtship, sexual relationships, marriage, the workplace, and on college campuses. Specifically, it analyzes letters written by students, servicemen, working class and professional men, married readers, and women, to demonstrate how the magazine impacted its broader audience’s perceptions and behaviours of gender and sexuality in 1950s America. Consequently, young men who applied Playboy’s hedonistic beliefs in their professional, romantic, or sexual relationships, facilitated women’s subordination in these contexts. Letters published by the magazine in its monthly “Dear Playboy” and “The Playboy Advisor” features are essential in understanding Playboy’s actual readership, the significance of the magazine in their daily lives, and culture’s broader impact on American behaviour in the postwar period. 

Dr. John Öwre, 'Neo-Romanticism and Enchantment in the Cinema of the Long Fifties: Splendor in the Grass (1961) and Night Tide (1961)'

The trajectory of post-war American culture was to a significant extent shaped by governmentsponsored programs in culture and education, the purpose of which was to inculcate liberal humanist values in opposition to “authoritarian thinking.” Under these programs, the legacy of romanticism can be said to have undergone a bifurcation with lasting effects on American culture in the subsequent decades. While high romanticism, with its mysticism and capacity for complete emotional possession, was thought to be morally discredited due to its associations with fascism, a safer romanticism which confined itself to empowering individualist yearning and heterosexual love, all the while eschewing metaphysics, irrationalism and strong inner convictions, was deemed generally compatible with the goals of the post-war liberal consensus. However, the two could not always be convincingly severed, as artists were alert to the possibility of the government-sanctioned romanticism – epitomized by what Mark Cousins has called the “closed romantic realism” of classical Hollywood films – relapsing into the dangerous current of emotional absolutes from which it had once sprung. In several Hollywood films from this period, a possible return to high romantic feeling is problematized as simultaneously an aesthetically and spiritually ‘correct’ response to stifling conformity and consumerism, and as a threat that must ultimately be resisted for the sake of moral order. In my paper, I use the coming-of-age films Splendor in the Grass (1961, Elia Kazan) and Night Tide (1961, Curtis Harrington) as case studies for discussing this theme. Both films exist in dialogue with canonical romantic texts – William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” (1807) and the German ‘undine’ legend, respectively – and reach deeply ambivalent conclusions about the high romantic imperative in a disenchanted age.

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CFP: Special issue of American Studies in Scandinavia: Individuality and Community in Mid-Century American Culture (1945-1964) 

We are planning a peer-reviewed special issue of American Studies in Scandinavia focused on the topics of individuality and community in mid-century American culture (1945-1964), inviting explorations of the literature, film, art, and thought of the period. We seek 8,000-word articles that focus either on individual writers/artists/thinkers in the period or engage with the topic more broadly. 

Mid-century US culture tends to be described in both simplified and paradoxical terms. On the one hand, it is thought of as a period of ‘containment’ culture, ‘Red-Scare’ rhetoric, and McCarthyism: a time when norms were strong, and it was difficult to be different. On the other hand, it is a period romanticized as the great era of American exceptionalism and industry. As today’s politicians from left to right increasingly rely on nostalgia for an idealized past, it becomes relevant to ask questions about the culture and values of mid-century America, and to challenge stereotypical images of this time, especially that of the white, churchgoing nuclear family, which has become an almost indelible image of the ‘long’ 1950s.  

At this pivotal moment in American history, the individual was often seen as being in conflict with society. Early Cold-War culture saw an increased focus on the negative effects of social conformity on the individual, whether in the form of Holden Caulfield’s restless depression in Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951) or Guy Montag’s awakening from totalitarianism in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953). Elsewhere, individualism and self-expression were celebrated, as can be seen, for example, in the Beat Generation’s rebellion against conformity and in the deep subjectivity in some of the work of the so-called Confessional Poets.   

Conformity was not necessarily only a negative aspect of social life in post-war US, however; the period was also characterized by a very real sense of community and the importance of ‘sticking together’ through thick and thin, especially in the early post-war period.  A sense of community can also be noted in how the rights and needs of individual groups of people began to be emphasized, which is clearly seen in how the Civil Rights movement gained traction and in the burgeoning feminist movement. While some cultural groupings dominated the cultural scene and appear to have been impermeable, marginal groups developed their own literature and arts scene. In American Literature in Transition, Stephen Belletto writes that ‘one reason the 1950s can still seem bland and white bread, with a literature to match, is because at the time the same kind of writers tended to be celebrated while whole groups of others were seen as unliterary’ (4). Further research into alternative cultural output is needed in order to paint a more inclusive and accurate picture of the 1950s, moving beyond WASP culture and the image of the white, nuclear family.  

Delving into the complexities of mid-century American culture, our proposed special issue serves as more than just a historical exploration; by inviting perspectives on diversity and voices from the margins, we seek to paint a more inclusive and accurate portrait of this era. We think a reevaluation of the legacy of the 1950s, and its relevance in today's socio-political landscape, is urgently needed. Our special issue will challenge readers to reconsider their assumptions and critically engage with the complexities of the past. 

For this special issue, we seek articles that approach the topics of individuality and community in the period more broadly, but also articles that focus on individual writers, artists, and thinkers. Topics include but are not limited to:   

  • Individualism and conformity culture  

  • Individual and community   

  • Individual works/authors/artists/thinkers  

  • Literary groups or movements  

  • Mainstream or avantgarde perceptions of literature and culture   

  • The political influence on cultural output   

  • National or transnational cultural relations and exchanges   

  • The legacy of mid-century American culture and values   

  • The legacy of colonialism in mid-century US  

  • The commercialization of literature and culture  

  • Cultural representations of family  

  • Religion  

  • LGBTQIA+ culture and mid-century America  

We are calling for 500-word abstracts to be submitted by 1 September 2024; to submit, send by email to annika.lindskog@englund.lu.se. Selected submissions will be notified by 1 October 2024. Finished articles are planned for production in autumn 2025. 

Annika J. Lindskog, Lund University, Sweden 

Sanna Melin Schyllert, Nantes University 

 

 

Sidansvarig: lene.nordrumenglund.luse | 2024-06-13