Thursday, July 15, 2010

The silent generation

The virtues of mad men
The Arrangements
The following people all have an interesting negative quality in common: Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Keith Richard, Janis Joplin, Gloria Steinhem, Lenny Bruce, James Dean, Leonard Cohen, Abbie Hoffman, Brian Wilson, Jerry Rubin, Joan Didion, Germaine Greer and Bob Dylan.

What is that negative quality?  Not one of them was a boomer. Not a single one. It's one of those counter-intuitive things we have to remind ourselves of. The 1960s is not something the boomers did it is something that happened to them. All of the important voices of the 1960s were from a generation before the boomers sometimes called the silent generation.

They were not, as anyone reading the list above can see, particularly silent. Here is what Time thought of them back in 1951:
What of today's youth? Some are smoking marijuana; some are dying in Korea. Some are going to college with their wives; some are making $400 a week in television. Some are sure they will be blown to bits by the atom bomb. Some pray. Some are raising the highest towers and running the fastest machines in the world. Some wear blue jeans; some wear Dior gowns. Some want to vote the straight Republican ticket. Some want to fly to the moon ... [snip]

Youth today is waiting for the hand of fate to fall on its shoulders, meanwhile working fairly hard and saying almost nothing. The most startling fact about the younger generation is its silence. With some rare exceptions, youth is nowhere near the rostrum. By comparison with the Flaming Youth of their fathers & mothers, today's younger generation is a still, small flame. It does not issue manifestoes, make speeches or carry posters. It has been called the "Silent Generation." But what does the silence mean? What, if anything, does it hide? Or are youth's elders merely hard of hearing?
I'm not going to but you can prove (and others on the net have) that Matt Weiner does a lot of his "historic research" by reading old copies of Time. Read the article at the link and you will see what I mean. Just about every detail of the characters  attitudes seem to have come from it.

It's not very good research from an historical point of view, and  far too often Weiner gets things laughably wrong. But he has done some research and he has gotten somethings very right. This is one of the big ones. It was the silent generation who made the 1960s happen. (Boomers made the 1970s happen and it tells you an awful lot about the boomers that we usually like to hide this embarassing truth from ourselves.)

One of the things that made life particularly challenging for that generation was trying to measure up to their immediate forebears. Their parents and grandparents had fought two world wars and raised families through the great depression. Right from the beginning the show has divided its silent generation players between the grown ups who successfully inherited the virtues of the older generation and the children who failed to do so. Successes include Don Draper, Peggy Olson, Joan Holloway and Harry Crane. The failures included Pete Campbell, Betty Draper and Paul Kinsey.

In this episode we see two fathers forced to acknowledge that there children are failures.

"Should you be lucky enough to strike gold, just remember that your children weren't there when you were swinging the pick." Horace Cook Senior is speaking of Horace Cook Junior here. The theme is about inheritance and two children (Horace Cook and Betty Draper) who fail to live up to their parents achievements. One is played for laughs and one for tears but the two are equally pathetic.

Cook goes on, "My son lives in a cloud of success but it's my success." and "When we put that money aside, he was a little boy. We didn't know what kind of person we were making."And it's just as true of Betty. She's never done anything for herself.

There is a particularly wrenching scene where Betty's father is forced to confront the truth about his daughter Betty. He tries to get Betty to talk about his funeral arrangements and she stuns him with a  reaction of extreme childishness and selfishness.
I don't understand why you like talking about this when you can see so clearly that it upsets me. It's selfish and morbid. I'm your little girl. And I know it must be horrible to find yourself looking at whatever it is that you're looking at but can't you keep it to yourself.
His face at the end of this scene is really something. Magnificent acting. It must be just horrible to realize that your own child is no good like that. This is mirrored by the scene at the end when Sally is upset at her grandfather's death and Betty handles it as badly as a mother could possibly handle it. Don's face as that sinks in is a picture of resigned acceptance.

Someone in the comments got very upset at my calling Betty a little girl a while ago. Well you couldn't have it clearer than that. And the lack of self awareness to not see that she is the one being selfish.

So Grandpa Gene switches his hopes from Betty to Sally:
You remind me more of your Grandma than your Mother. You know, she did drafting in the twenties for this engineer. .... You can really do something. Don't let your mother tell you otherwise."
I love the bonding that happens between Gene and his granddaughter this episode. I also love the way that the episode mocks our obsession with physical danger.

And there we have our theme for the year. It's all about who did and who did not grow up. When we get to the episode about the JFK assassination we will see it's not about the assassination as it is about people's reactions. It's a fascinating episode because Weiner levels some pretty acidic criticism at the way people did react.

As with Season two, the show now goes through a number of rather gimmicky episodes before coming back to the theme for the end. But that is for the next post.

Season three blogging begins here. The next post will be here.

Season two, if you are interested, begins here.

Season one begins here.


  1. Some interesting observations here. I clicked on the link and read the TIME essay. It reminds of something Aristotle wrote about the younger generation that could have been written today, I got the same feeling reading the TIME essay. So maybe every generation is critical of the one coming after.

    Reading this it occurs to me that none of the characters in Mad Men are "larger than life" (with the possible exception of Conrad Hilton who came and went). And maybe that's the point Weiner is trying to make, that these are essentially just ordinary people--warts and all--trying to survive in a world that is becoming increasingly complex. Contrast Don Draper's life with the simplicity of Dick Whitman's childhood on the farm, the abuse notwithstanding.

    I'm not sure the Weiner is being critical of the way people reacted to the assassination, or is just presenting things the way they were. His portayal of the way adults reacted to it is accurate, I know because I lived through it and remember how my parents and extended family (who were all Republicans), reacted. We sat glued to the TV that entire weekend, people coming in and out like it was a wake. That's what everyone did for four days until the funeral on Monday.

  2. This reminds me, President Kennedy's funeral was on Monday November 25, which President Johnson declared a National Day of Mourning, all schools, businesses, federal and state offices were closed. Believe me, nobody with a television did NOT watch the funeral.

    People younger than me sometimes ask me what that weekend was like. I tell them that the only thing I can compare it to is how the American people reacted in the aftermath of 9/11 multiplied by 100,000.

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