1950s, A Lady with a Pink, Andrew Marvell, Anthony Burgess, Cold War, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ezra Pound, Fallout shelter, Hans Memling, J.H. Plumb, James Joyce, James McMullan, Life magazine, Lord Snowdon, Melvin and Maria Mininson, Milton Berle, Mme de Maintenon, Princess Margaret, Private Eye, Satire, Shirley Tomkievicz, Suez Crisis, T.S. Eliot, Texaco Star Theatre, The Rite of Spring, The Seven Joys of Mary, The Waste Land, Thomas Meehan, Thomas Rowlandson, Tivoli Copenhagen, Ulysses
This issue’s cover shows a detail from A Lady with a Pink by the fifteenth century Flemish artist Hans Memling, whose The Seven Joys of Mary is the subject of the article ‘Hans Memling’s Christmas Pageant’ by Associate Editor Shirley Tomkievicz:
The joyous and festive work reproduced on the preceding pages and seen in the details on the following pages is a pageant as much as a painting, a dramatization of holy events in a landscape that might accommodate the revelry of a Midsummer Eve. Exactly what is going on is hard to sort out at first glance. Surely it is Twelfth-night, for what can only be the Magi and the Holy Family are in the forefront of the action. Yet it must be Christmas Day as well, for to the left of the throng at center is a radiant Nativity scene, observed through a window by two men in black. What is the city that sits in mid-landscape like a crown? Jerusalem, no doubt, for such a skyline can only denote the home of kings…
If any modern equivalent exists for Memling’s landscape, it would not be found in painting, the church, or the theatre, but in some place where children go – a crèche scene in the open air, the Children’s Zoo in Central Park, Tivoli, or perhaps even Disneyland.
Also in this issue:
In ‘Must We Be Nostalgic About the Fifties?’, Thomas Meehan looks back on a decade which had only ended twelve years earlier:
Thinking back on the 1950s, I’m inclined to observe that no decade could have been all good that gave us Roy Cohn, the hula hoop, Peyton Place, Jeff Chandler, the H-bomb, Make Room for Daddy, Pat Boone, Mickey Spillane, the Edsel, and “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” Still, as a vast wave of nostalgia for the 1950’s sweeps the country, an enormous number of Americans are today looking back on the decade as a shimmeringly serene and happy time. As, in short, a sort of Golden Age.
Curiously, it is those under the age of thirty who are most nostalgic…Why? Clearly because the young find themselves profoundly turned off by present-day society. The rage for the fifties marks the first time, however, that such a craze has sprung up for so recent a decade, an era that was, really, only yesterday.
I myself, by the way, feel scarcely the slightest twinge of nostalgia for the fifties. In fact, thinking back on the decade tends mainly to depress me. When the fifties began, I was nineteen years old, and so by the time they’d ended I’d inexorably got to be twenty-nine…
What I do remember most vividly about the fifties is that, as the decade began, millions of Americans were gripped by an abject fear of being blown to smithereens by the Russians…On an evening in the autumn of 1956, during the Suez crisis, remember walking along Fifth Avenue in New York as a low-flying jet roared suddenly overhead and thinking immediately, THIS IS IT. And millions of others experienced such moments of absolute terror during that edgy decade.
Halfway through the fifties, in the summer of 1955, Life ran an article entitled “Nobody is Mad With Nobody”, in the text of which, next to photographs of things like two-car suburban garages marked “His” and “Hers,” the magazine suggested that just about everybody in the United States was absolutely delighted with himself and his way of living. After all, Life pointed out, the country was not only at peace but was also in a period of unprecedented prosperity…Nirvana, hinted Life, was just around the corner, and it is perhaps this halcyon mid-decade period that the young are today remembering with such feelings of nostalgia.
The 1950’s may thus be seen as a time of calm before the storm, a period of surface tranquillity beneath which all sorts of major problems were, like undetected cancers, left to grow insidiously.
I copied the whole poem out, without the notes – which I could see even then were a bit of a put-on. Then I got down to learning it by heart. The result was that, at fifteen, I could quote Dante and Baudelaire in the original, as well as a few objurgations from the Upanishads. The Waste Land was, and still is, quite apart from its poetic merits, a kind of big railway terminus, from which you can take a train to various literatures and theologies. In the refreshment room you see Mr. Eliot himself, taking tea and refusing a slice of peach tart. He is not going anywhere; he has arrived.
By the time I got to Manchester University, I understood The Waste Land pretty well. Without boasting, I can say that I knew the poem better than any of my English lecturers: they did not have it by heart, and I did. In my first year I organized a sort of arty reading of it…To accompany the opening, “April is the cruellest month,” I wanted that marvellous chill bassoon solo at the beginning of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, but I was howled down and we had to have a young music student playing Delius on the piano. Recently I discovered that Eliot had had that very Stravinsky bassoon in his ears while composing his opening lines. I wish he’d announced the fact in 1937, the year of my production. I hate being right too late.
Illustration by James McMullan.
Look at it as a film scenario, which in many ways it resembles, and you can see that it goes much farther – with its jump cuts and flashes backward and forward and montages and intense economy – than anything by Truffaut or Godard or Fellini or Antonioni…The poet is a man we have met before – in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” but he is less of the clown now and more of Prince Hamlet. He is inhibited, scared of sex: the spring is an assault on his drab Bostonian security…
The Waste Land has didactic elements, like all Eliot’s work, especially the later, overtly Anglo-Catholic, writings, but it is not in itself a sermon. It is a dramatic poem with many voices, and it would be as unwise to fasten any of its many moral statements on the author himself as it would be to identify Hamlet or Othello or Macbeth with William Shakespeare.
… What first struck all the readers of my generation was the way in which avante-garde daring was combined with classical authority. It was something to be recognized also in Joyce’s Ulysses. The new seemed to be made out of the traditional, and these two innovators disclosed a far profounder awareness of the importance of tradition than many of the old guard, its guardians…
At the same time, Eliot did not shrink from filling his verse with most untraditional properties, at the risk of the accusations of ugliness or even the odd snicker in the wrong place. “While I was fishing in the dull canal on a winter evening round behind the gashouse” – if this suggests the comic lugubrious, then Eliot’s complex seriousness is well able to accommodate it. It is, in fact, able to accommodate most things, from the pills that Lil took to “bring it off” to “the agony in stony places” and the “reverberation of thunder of spring over distant mountains.” English poetry had not known such a breadth of tone since Andrew Marvell. Robert Browning had tried to write poetry in which corns and bunions and tobacco went along with more traditional properties, but he failed in two ways: he never managed to absorb the contemporary speech rhythms in which trivialities are mentioned, and he never elevated trivialities to seriousness.
‘The Waste Land Nobody Knew’ shows a page from the original draft which Eliot eventually dropped, with notes by Ezra Pound: In ‘Political Pornography’, J.H. Plumb writes, as part of his ‘In the Light of the Past’ series, about how the ‘vituperation and filth’ poured on the powerful in the present day has a long history:
The function of such tales [as those told at Louis XIV’s Versailles] is an essential one in all circles of power; they provide a release for the envy and malice of those of those on the fringes. These people gain a sense of being on the inside from gossiping about a senator, for example, just as a seventeenth-century provincial aristocrat felt in the know when he heard what Mme de Maintenon reportedly said to her confessor. That is political smut, but it rarely gets into print in a democratic society and never in an autocratic world.
Political pornography is far rarer in human history than political smut, and much more dangerous for the society in which it burgeons…[It] represents a widening chasm between the governors and governed. Interestingly it vanished after the [French] Revolution of 1789; so too did it vanish in Victorian England, when a fresh identity was discovered between the institutions of government and the nation.