The Fifties: An Underground History by James R Gaines review – a different view of the decade

Far from being ‘years of conformity and depression’, the 50s saw radicals in race, sexuality and activism break new ground

The 1950s have not had a good press. In the US the decade has long been synonymous with a retreat to political and social conservatism following the upheaval of the second world war. Senator McCarthy and his House Committee on Un-American Activities is the obvious example here, but there are many more. Women who had taken men’s jobs during the hostilities reconvened in dormitory suburbs to nest, wear pointy bras and full skirts and raise the next generation of patriotic Americans. Black servicemen who had fought alongside their white compatriots in Europe found themselves returning to a segregated south where they were required to sit at the back of the bus. The 50s, or to be more exact the period from 1946 to 1963, marked what Norman Mailer dubbed at the time the “years of conformity and depression”.

Except it didn’t, or at least not for everyone. As James Gaines shows in this revelatory study, beneath the Pleasantville surface of postwar America there churned all manner of resentment and refusal. Everywhere he looks, Gaines finds individuals who insisted on marching to their own drum, even when that brought them into direct and even dangerous conflict with the newly oppressive status quo. In the process, he sheds light on a whole range of underground movements tackling everything from race relations to working-class feminism by way of non-binary sexuality.

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