Friday, June 18, 2010

Fern bars (3)

One of the popular novels in the '50s was a book called AUNTIE MAME by Patrick Dennis. It was about a guy growing up in the '20s and '30s. There's a wonderful chapter where he talks about how he and his friends are in college and they all worship Fred Astaire just like people would later worship Elvis Presley. They want to dress like him, talk like him, light cigarettes like him. They all walk around in this absolutely hilarious, unknowing parody of sophistication and adulthood. That's exactly what people in the '40s and particularly the '50s were not doing. They were not in any way imitating or acting out adulthood. They weren't like little girls putting on their mother's dresses, high heels and lipstick. The rebelliousness that was everywhere perceived and what has today become a cliche wasn't about politics. It wasn't about changing society or addressing injustices.
The rebelliousness was the insistence of young people of all kinds on autonomy, on being able to act as they wished for no particular reason and engage in play or delinquent activities that weren't going to lead into adulthood or jobs or family or responsibility.
Greil Marcus from a 1997 interview
There is something sort of, but only sort of, right about what Marcus says above. I don't think there was anything particularly new about it for starters. You can find the same attitude in the letters John Dos Passos and his friends write to one another just before they go to take part in World War 1. Marcus is being a typical boomer here and imagining that his generation had experiences that no one before them had or could have had.

And, much as Marcus pretends otherwise, the 1960s rebellion was mostly an elite thing that played out in a small number of elite universities of industrialized nations.

It was in the 1970s that our society was finally wealthy enough that the entire middle class could take part. Some of us didn't want to. And thus the appeal of fern bars. They may have been a poor example of adulthood but they were an example and, in the town where I grew up, they seemed to be the only part of the culture where people went who looked forward to growing up. They were a place where some people, people who didn't feel like they fit in with the whole youth rebellion thing, chose to, as Marcus puts it above, "walk around in this absolutely hilarious, unknowing parody of sophistication and adulthood."

They didn't create this sense themselves. Like any cultural moment of any significance at any time anywhere, the bars put together elements that were already lying around just waiting for someone to put them together in the right way. My mother in those days wanted to have a wing chair and a Tiffany-style lamp for her house. And she did have all those things because she could afford to. I suspect, although I don't know, that a lot of people who went to fern bars could not afford such things.

But they aspired to them.


  1. Yes, I suspect you're right. Not unlike here, where middle-class people in the 50s and 60s who lived in or near NYC saved up for months for a "night on the town" which was short for dinner at a fine restaurant and dancing, and then go back home, maybe by subway, to their one bedroom apartment with no a/c in the Bronx.

    I'm not sure what point Greil Marcus was trying to make comparing kids in the 20s and 30s to kids in the 40s and 50s. Patrick Dennis was part of an elite class who could afford to go to college. In the 30s kids who were not part of that class were working helping their families survive the Great Depression. In the 40s they were fighting a war and in the 50s they began to build their lives, get jobs, and make babies, who were the baby boomers.

  2. "And, much as Marcus pretends otherwise, the 1960s rebellion was mostly an elite thing that played out in a small number of elite universities of industrialized nations."

    I agree, although here in the US it spread to most of the non-elite colleges as well. But it was definitely started and subsequently fueled by the children of at least some degree of priveledge to have been in college. Those who weren't were in Viet Nam.

  3. What's interesting is that the first component of the 60s rebellion in the US was the Civil Rights movement started by Martin Luther King. As he often said, this was grounded in Christian theology and started in the Black churches of the South. The 2nd part of the 60s rebellion in the US was the war in Viet Nam, and those protests began on the college campuses. However, both Civil Rights and opposition to the war in Viet Nam became "mainstream" and it was not uncommon to see priests and nuns and other "grown ups" participating in the protests. Dr. King himself eventually expessed his opposition to the war before he was killed, and Bobby Kennedy ran against LBJ on a platform of getting the US out of Viet Nam before he was killed.

    The sexual revolution didn't really get going here until the 70s.

  4. "Sexual revolution" is a difficult term. You are definitely right that there was something new that happened in the 1970s that did not happen in the 1960s.

    But the period running from the end of WW2 through the early 1960s seems to have had its own sexual revolution and you could argue that much of the 1960s grew out of that. Those girls fainting for Sinatra, then Elvis, then the Beatles and then The Rolling Stones were responding sexually. Nobody had ever seen anything like that before. This was much noted at the time and the expression used to describe it at the time was "the quiet revolution". It was a huge change that just snuck up while nobody was looking and suddenly it was everywhere.

    The relationship between these cultural factors and the really important political events you correctly highlight is, well, I don't know what it is.

  5. I can't pin down a direct relationship either, but it must have been a factor, maybe on a subliminal level. I don't think we can underestimate the impact of the Kinsey Report in 1948 on male sexuality and the one that followed a few years later on female sexuality. Sex was finally out of the closet, and maybe that's when the seeds that blossomed into the sexual revolution of the 70s were sown. But girls fainting when they saw Sinatra pre-dates that, maybe the impact of the two world wars and farm boys going overseas--"How You Gonna Keep Em Down on the Farm" type of thing.

  6. I think maybe the relationship between the sexual revolution and the important political events was the result of many things converging or blossoming at the same time. It was also a time of great prosperity, which allowed people to think about more than just putting food on the table.