Entry from June 25, 2002

In answering a question by Daphne Eviatar of the New York Times, Morris Dickstein, distinguished professor of English at the City University of New York and author of Leopards in the Temple: The Transformation of American Fiction, 1945-1970 (Harvard University Press), described how the various rebellions and “liberation” struggles of the 1960s had their antecedents in the allegedly “conservative” 1950s. This idea is in need of some considerable qualification, by the way. We should remember, for instance, that it was in the 1950s when Lionel Trilling remarked, not without reason, that conservatism in America was nothing more than “an irritable mental gesture.”

But let that pass. Say the period was conservative, which it certainly was in the somewhat limited sense that anti-communism and sexual restraint (at least by later standards) were both relatively popular. Dickstein’s point is that this alleged conservatism, whatever he imagines it to be, might have been good for creativity. He says that “Norman Mailer recently talked about the 50”s as a steady drip on the brain” and adds, creatively varying the metaphor, “that irritation can create the pearl in the oyster.”

Some of the best work of writers, intellectuals and filmmakers of the time was in reaction to social conformity and the limited range of political debate. Films like Rebel Without a Cause reacted against the home and family ethos of the 1950”s. In that respect, the oppressive atmosphere of the 50”s did not make writers happy, but it was good for their work.

This is an interesting example of how we see the past through the lens of the present. I don’t know how recently Professor Dickstein has seen Rebel Without a Cause, but I wonder that even his creativity is equal to the task of seeing this film as being opposed to the “oppressive atmosphere” he retrospectively attributes to its period. In fact, it is a film about a weak father (played by Jim Backus) and a domineering, over-protective mother (Ann Doran). Its hero, represented by the eternally conflicted adolescent, James Dean, seeks for ways to be a man vis à vis the embryonic gang culture of his new high school because of his contempt for his father’s bad example of manhood.

It therefore makes more sense to see the film as a conservative document, an appeal for a return to a more traditional, patriarchal family structure and a cautionary tale of what happens to those youngsters who do not have strong father-figures to look up to. Its point to contemporary audiences was that it upheld “the home and family ethos of the 1950s” and thus that the “atmosphere” of the day was (presumably) not nearly “oppressive” enough, at least as oppression is understood by the likes of Professor Dickstein and other, perhaps unwitting acolytes of the feminist revolution of the ensuing decade.

The whole point of the film’s title was that Dean’s character rather pathetically had nothing to rebel for, but only something to rebel against. Yet that adolescent pathos was precisely what the kids, from his own time to ours, found attractive about him. To the youth culture it never really mattered if he was rebelling against mom or dad, family breakdown or family “oppression,” — or, for that matter, against Vietnam or capitalism or globalization or any of the other puerile “causes” of which he has been taken to be the patron saint. All that mattered was that doomed and tragic pose of the teenage rebel which, by the way, has remained substantially unchanged through all the other variations in teenage fashion from that day to this. And to think we owe it all not to the “conservative” 1950s but to one of that decade’s most conservative films!

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