From "Happy Days" to "Mad Men"

Some recent conversations on Arcade have gotten me thinking about midcentury America, or rather our idea of the midcentury as a privileged moment of literary production, consumption, and promise. In particular, I’ve been turning over Natalia Cecire’s query, “[W]hat is to be gained in mourning the passing of a genre or a medium”? We might also ask, what is to be gained in mourning the passing of an era?

To begin thinking through how we might answer these questions, let’s recall two forms of nostalgia for midcentury America.

The classic form of midcentury nostalgia comes from the cultural (and often the political) right. Celebrating the fertility and energy of midcentury intellectual and popular culture was a solution to the problem posed by the 1960s. The problem was that the 1960s screwed everything up; the solution was to recall those days when things weren’t nearly so screwed up, when there was consensus, order, and good sense all around. Think of American Graffiti (1973), Happy Days (1974-84), the vision of the good life invoked by Reagan’s “Morning in America” (1984).

More often, however, left nostalgia for the midcentury fetishizes the intellectual culture of the period, longing for an era when Partisan Review–like little magazines were all the rage, when even the CIA felt obliged to pay attention to intellectuals, and when more formal social norms forced people to wear fabulous outfits. The medium-sized cult that has emerged around Mad Men exemplifies the left nostalgia I have in mind -- and I admit to being a card-carrying member of the cult. Through from one perspective we might see the show as arguing for the fundamental necessity of the 1960s -- and, indeed, racism, homophobia, sexual harassment, and corruption run rampant in the halls of Sterling Cooper -- do we not also detect that the creators of the show possess a kind of obsessive love for the era's material culture? Are we not supposed to revel in the idea of reading Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency (1957) shortly after its publication? Abstracting beyond Mad Men, don't left midcentury nostalgics wish they could non-ironically have the top of their heads (metaphorically) blown off by some symposium in the pages of Partisan Review? Be shocked again by countercultural subversion as if for the first time, all while enjoying some tasty martinis?

This second version of left midcentury nostalgia seems less productive to me. If we want to return to a dynamic, vibrant literary-intellectual culture, we shouldn't attempt to revive the styles of some previous era, even its intellectual styles, however appealing those styles might often be. The real task ahead of us is to build new institutions, to coordinate with educational activists, to build synthetic accounts of the present moment that help us lay the foundation for the flourishing of whatever new intellectual culture will be -- with luck, effort, and invention -- looked back upon nostalgically by future generations.

This should be our mission.

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