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The Fifties by David Halberstam

The Fifties (original 1994; edition 1993)

by David Halberstam

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1,135137,212 (4.12)9
Title:The Fifties
Authors:David Halberstam
Info:Villard Books (1993), Hardcover
Collections:Your library
Tags:American, history, 1950s, journalism, cultural history, social history, economic history, political history

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The Fifties by David Halberstam (1994)



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David Halberstam is a self-styled “child of the fifties,” and this large book is a highly personal reflection on the events of the decade. From the author’s monogram on the front cover to the reflective “Author’s Note” on the final pages, The Fifties bears the imprint of the author’s sense of self. Halberstam was a college student and cub reporter during the fifties, and he reports to the reader that this era shaped his values and outlook. He therefore undertook this project in order to reflect on “things that happened when I was much younger” (799). Halberstam also assumes the role of a champion for what he considers an unjustly neglected decade in United States history.

As one of the most acclaimed non-fiction writers of his generation, Halberstam understandably presents his survey of the fifties in engaging, novelistic prose. The book belongs in the tradition of previous popular “decade” summaries including Eric F. Goldman’s The Crucial Decade and After (which Halberstam cites) and Frederick Lewis Allen’s Only Yesterday, on the 1920s, and Since Yesterday, on the 1930s.

Halberstam’s thesis — that the fifties were “a more interesting and complicated decade than most people imagine,” and that developments in the fifties show “why the sixties took place” (799) — is not so much demonstrated as assumed, and Halberstam does not marshal evidence to support it. Instead, his approach is to narrate what he considers key events of the decade, combined with convincing character sketches of influential figures in politics, business, academia, entertainment, and the arts. Halberstam’s unevenly documented research rests on published memoirs, secondary works, and a considerable number of interviews by the author. The narrative drive of the book allows no room for criticism of these sources, and Halberstam seems to place implicit faith in the accuracy and truthfulness of his informants’ memories, even decades after the events being recalled.

The book’s structure is neither chronological nor thematic. Instead, the text is arranged in forty-six numbered chapters divided into three large chunks labeled, somewhat less than helpfully, as “One,” “Two,” and “Three.” Most topics are dispensed with in a single chapter, but some narrative threads, such as the career of Richard Nixon and the development of the oral contraceptive pill, are advanced in each of the three parts. The arrangement of the material appears to have been made for reasons of literary taste, further reinforcing the book’s resemblance to a contemporary novel. The index is thorough, but some entries point to adjacent pages rather than the page containing the targeted reference. For these reasons the book is difficult to use as a historical resource.

By interspersing character sketches within a well-written narrative, Halberstam uses a historiographical method dating back at least to Clarendon’s history of the English civil wars. Like Clarendon, Halberstam is an engaged narrator, writing for instance of U.S. foreign policy in terms of “we,” “us,” and “ours.” But whereas the royalist earl wrote from the perspective of order and authority, Halberstam’s sympathies are more often with his decade’s outsiders, rebels, and malcontents, from Jack Kerouac to Rosa Parks. Even his portrait of Joe McCarthy stresses the maverick senator’s misfit qualities.

In sum, The Fifties is highly subjective history. Its value lies in its comprehensive coverage of a wide range of events and trends by an engaged chronicler.
2 vote Muscogulus | Jan 13, 2014 |
Good history, interesting point that per Nixon ML King told Nixon that King voted for Ike in 56. Halberstam makes the point that the Democrats wouldn't have registered King in Ga. in 56.
1 vote wwj | Apr 2, 2013 |
This book has been re-issued several times. This copy was provided by Open Road Media and Netgalley. This a lengthy book that attempts to cover an entire decade. The fifties did indeed bring about a great many changes to our country. This book reminds us of how suburbia took hold, motel chains like Holiday Inn took off , as well as McDonald's. We revisited the cold war , McCarthyism, Eisenhower's administration, Korea, desegregation, television, music, the pill, popular actors and movies, bombs, Cuba, popular automobiles, and a lot of politics. For me personally, I enjoyed the chapters that focused on the roles of women and their growing dissatisfaction and the subtle brainwashing the popular magazines used to sell an image that was impossible to maintain. I also enjoyed the chapters on pop culture. Elvis, Marilyn, James Dean , Marlon Brando, Lucy, and the infamous quiz show scandal. However, there were more chapters devoted to the H bomb, wars, and politics than anything else. While a lot of that was interesting, it did read like very dry history and I often found myself tuning out. I did enjoy most of the book and learned many things about the fifties I didn't know and I enjoyed the nostalgia as well. There are a few photos provided at the end of the book. Overall this one gets a B + Thanks again to the publisher and Netgalley for the digital copy. ( )
1 vote gpangel | Feb 14, 2013 |
Interesting insights to the fifties ( )
  Jeanperry | Nov 20, 2011 |
This is the best book that I have read for a long time. It is not however, a comprehensive history of the decade but rather, a detailed and engrossing account of American history during the period - no Suez or Hungary here. The breadth of coverage, in terms of topics covered, is stunning (housing, civil rights, foreign policy, pop culture etc etc) and it contains chapters about many, many things I knew nothing about.

Halberstam's writing style is easy to follow and includes an appropriate number of humorous anecdotes. Highly recommended. ( )
2 vote cwhouston | Nov 21, 2010 |
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In the beginning, that era was dominated by the shadow of a man no longer there—Franklin D. Roosevelt.
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This ebook features an extended biography of David Halberstam.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0449909336, Paperback)

"In retrospect," writes David Halberstam, "the pace of the fifties seemed slower, almost languid. Social ferment, however, was beginning just beneath this placid surface." He shows how the United States began to emerge from the long shadow of FDR's 12-year presidency, with the military-industrial complex and the Beat movement simultaneously growing strong. Television brought not only situation comedies but controversial congressional hearings into millions of living rooms. While Alfred Kinsey was studying people's sex lives, Gregory Pincus and other researchers began work on a pill that would forever alter the course of American reproductive practices. Halberstam takes on these social upheavals and more, charting a course that is as easy to navigate as it is wide-ranging.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:49:50 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

"The Fifties is a sweeping social, political, economic, and cultural history of the ten years that David Halberstam regards as seminal in determining what our nation is today. It is the decade of Joe McCarthy and the young Martin Luther King, the Korean War and Levittown, Jack Kerouac and Elvis Presley." "Halberstam not only gives us the titans of the age - Eisenhower, Dulles, Oppenheimer, MacArthur, Hoover, and Nixon - but also Harley Earl, who put fins on cars; Dick and Mac McDonald and Ray Kroc, who mass-produced the American hamburger; Kemmons Wilson, who placed his Holiday Inns along the nation's roadsides; U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers; Grace Metalious, who wrote Peyton Place; and "Goody" Pincus, who led the team that invented the Pill. Here is a portrait of a time of conflict, at once an age of astonishing material affluence and a period of great political anxiety." "We follow, among other things, the quickening pace of American life and the powerful impact of national television, still in its infancy, on American society: from the Kefauver hearings to I Love Lucy to Charles Van Doren and the quiz-show scandals to the young John Chancellor of NBC covering the Little Rock riots and holding up a disturbing mirror to America."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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