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This engrossing anthology assembles classic New Yorker pieces from a complex era enshrined in the popular imagination as the decade of poodle skirts and Cold War paranoia—featuring contributions from Philip Roth, John Updike, Nadine Gordimer, and Adrienne Rich, along with fresh analysis of the 1950s by some of today’s finest writers.
The New Yorker was there in real time, chronicling the tensions and innovations that lay beneath the era’s placid surface. In this thrilling volume, classic works of reportage, criticism, and fiction are complemented by new contributions from the magazine’s present all-star lineup of writers. The magazine’s commitment to overseas reporting flourished in the 1950s, leading to important dispatches from East Berlin, the Gaza Strip, and Cuba during the rise of Castro. Closer to home, the fight to break barriers and establish a new American identity led to both illuminating coverage, as in a portrait of Thurgood Marshall at an NAACP meeting in Atlanta, and trenchant commentary, as in E. B. White’s blistering critique of Senator Joe McCarthy. The arts scene is recalled in critical writing rarely reprinted, including Wolcott Gibbs on My Fair Lady, Anthony West on Invisible Man, and Philip Hamburger on Candid Camera. Also featured are great early works from Philip Roth and Nadine Gordimer, as well as startling poems by Theodore Roethke and Anne Sexton, among others. Completing the panoply are insightful and entertaining new pieces by present-day New Yorker contributors examining the 1950s through contemporary eyes. The result is a vital portrait of American culture as only one magazine in the world could do it.
Including contributions by Elizabeth Bishop • Truman Capote • John Cheever • Roald Dahl • Janet Flanner • Nadine Gordimer • A. J. Liebling • Dwight Macdonald • Joseph Mitchell • Marianne Moore • Vladimir Nabokov • Sylvia Plath • V. S. Pritchett • Adrienne Rich • Lillian Ross • Philip Roth • Anne Sexton • James Thurber • John Updike • Eudora Welty • E. B. White • Edmund Wilson
And featuring new perspectives by Jonathan Franzen • Malcolm Gladwell • Adam Gopnik • Elizabeth Kolbert • Jill Lepore • Rebecca Mead • Paul Muldoon • Evan Osnos • David Remnick
Praise for The 50s “Superb: a gift that keeps on giving.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“[A] magnificent anthology.”—Literary Review
Under the Cover
An excerpt from The 50s: The Story of a Decade
John Graham and Rex Lardner
January 7, 1950 (On Jackie Robinson, TV Salesman)
On learning that Jackie Robinson, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ second baseman, is spending Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings each week as a television-set salesman in the Sunset Appliance Store in Rego Park, Queens, we hurried over to the place to see how he is making out. From a talk we had with Joseph Rudnick, president of Sunset, just before Robinson appeared, we learned that he is making out fine. Rudnick, a small, alert-looking man, graying at the temples, whom we found in an office on a balcony at the rear of the store, informed us that the accomplished young man had been working there, on a salary-and-commission basis, for five weeks, and that if he liked, he could work there forever, the year around. “Business booming like wildfire since Jackie came,” Rudnick told us, looking down at a throng milling about among television sets, washing machines, and refrigerators. “Sports fans flocking in here,” he said with satisfaction. “Young persons, curious about the National League’s Most Valuable Player and one of the best base-stealers since Max Carey. Jackie signs baseballs for them and explains about the double steal. Since he’s been here, he’s sold sets to Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson, among others. The newsreel people shot him selling a set to a customer. He’s a natural salesman, with a natural modesty that appeals to buyers. The salesman wrapped up in himself makes a very small package. Campanella, Hodges, and Barney dropped by to wish him luck. Campanella’s his roomy. There’s Jackie now! With his business agent.” Robinson and a bigger, more strapping man with a florid face were making their way along the floor, the big man in the lead. “He’ll be right up,” Rudnick said. “Hangs his coat here. One other thing we do,” he went on, “when a bar buys a television set, we send Gene Stanlee over to the bar—the wrestler. Mr. America.”
Robinson and his manager for radio and television appearances came up, and we were introduced, learning that the latter’s name is Harry Solow. “Jackie don’t have to lay awake nights worrying about his condition, bucking that mob three times a week,” Solow said. Rudnick told us that Solow also manages Joe Franklin and Symphony Sid, and Solow explained that they are radio personalities. “Jackie’s all lined up for his own radio program,” he continued. “He’s mostly interested in boys’ work, though. Spends all his spare time at the Harlem Y.M.C.A.” “How I keep in shape is playing games with kids,” Robinson said in a well-modulated voice. “When I quit baseball, I intend to give it full time.” We learned that the Robinsons have a television set with a sixteen-inch screen and that their only child, three-year-old Jackie, Jr., likes Howdy Doody, Mr. I. Magination, and Farmer Gray better than anything else on video. As Robinson was about to go down to the main floor, it occurred to us to ask him if he’d developed any special sales technique. He looked surprised and replied that he didn’t think so. “If a customer is going to buy a set, he’s going to buy it,” he said philosophically. “You can’t twist his arm.” “On the other hand,” Rudnick observed, “the right angle for a salesman is the try-angle.”
We bade Rudnick and Solow goodbye and followed Robinson downstairs. A short man in a heavy overcoat got him first. He wanted to see a twelve-inch set. “There’s a bunch of them in the basement,” Robinson told him. “All playing at once.” He led the man down to the basement. We followed. It was quite dark there, but we could make out rows and rows of sets and see customers being herded from one model to another by spirited salesmen. Robinson conducted his man to a twelve-inch set, turned it on, adjusted the picture, and in rather a shout, to get his voice above the hubbub of the amplifiers, named the price and outlined the guarantee. “I like it!” the man hollered. “Could my wife work it—all those knobs?” “A child could work it,” said Robinson, and it was a deal.
July 16, 1955 (On radioactive debris)
Fallout, the radioactive debris that accumulates in the upper atmosphere following the detonation of a nuclear bomb and sooner or later comes to earth, often many hundreds, and even thousands, of miles from the scene of the explosion, is usually less visible than the soot that settles on Manhattan every day at the rate of a ton to every square mile. The particles of dust that constitute most fallout look like any other dust, cannot be smelled, felt, or tasted, and descend and land soundlessly. As a general rule, fallout can be detected only by instruments—notably, of course, by the Geiger counter but also by such less celebrated devices as the scintillation counter and the ion chamber. Scientists checking on the density of fallout frequently differ in their interpretations of their findings, but there is clearly no room for disagreement about one thing: This dry rain of tainted matter increases the degree of radiation in any locality it visits. The point of conflict among the experts, as I have come to realize while looking into the problems presented by fallout, is over the danger, if any, of the increase, and this at present seems to be more a matter of opinion than of scientific determination. It appears indisputable, however, that no community need be apprehensive over a slight rise in the level of radiation (as commonly used, the word is synonymous with radioactivity), for in normally rainy weather certain radioactive natural gases that almost everywhere are constantly emanating from the ground do not diffuse as readily as they do at other times, and so increase the amount of radiation in the immediate vicinity, occasionally as much as 400 percent—a phenomenon that has been commonplace all over the world since long before anyone ever heard of fallout and has been definitely proved to be harmless.
Fallout varies greatly in intensity, depending, in part, upon the amount of energy released—or, to use the technical term, “yielded”—by the bombs that create it. This nation’s high-yielding bombs are tried out over remote islands in the Pacific and its low-yielding models over the Atomic Energy Commission’s Nevada Proving Ground. Early in 1951, the A.E.C. became sufficiently impressed by the fallout that its low-yielding bombs were precipitating on widespread portions of this country to set up a nationwide system of observation stations for monitoring fluctuations in the density of radiation. The system now has eighty-nine stations, and not one of them, whether near the test area or thousands of miles away from it, has ever failed to report a rise in radiation following a “shot,” which is the A.E.C. people’s term for the setting off of a bomb. Seemingly satisfied by the reports from these stations, Lewis L. Strauss, the chairman of the A.E.C., issued a statement last February declaring that as far as the Nevada experiments were concerned, “the hazard [of dangerously radioactive fallout] has been successfully confined to the controlled area of the Test Site.” A month later, however, two scientists at the University of Colorado were reported by the newspapers as having asserted that fallout over their state had reached a point where it could no longer be ignored by those concerned with public safety. The Governor of Colorado, a former United States senator who served on the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy while he was in Washington, responded to this by calling the scientists’ warning “phony” and saying that they ought to be arrested. The clamor quieted down when the president of the university issued a statement to the effect that the two scientists had qualified their warning by saying that the fallout would be dangerous if its radioactivity was maintained at the peaks it occasionally reached.
The Colorado ruckus was only one, and by no means the first, of a number of public warnings and bickerings over the issue of fallout. In 1953, the chairman of the Physics Department of the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City, in a state bordering on Nevada, expressed the belief that Americans’ capacity for tolerating radiation was being sapped by fallout, and that same year five sheep ranchers in Cedar City, Utah, some two hundred miles from the Proving Ground, sued the government for damages, claiming that fallout had been fatal to approximately a thousand of their animals. The A.E.C. investigated and found no evidence to support the contention that the death of the sheep had been caused by fallout. The case of the sheep ranchers, which is still pending, brought back memories of the explosion of the first atomic bomb, on July 16, 1945, in New Mexico, which, among many other things, inflicted burns on a nearby herd of cattle and caused the animals’ hair to turn gray. (The cattle were presently sent to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where they and, more recently, their progeny have been studied ever since by members of the faculty of the University of Tennessee School of Agriculture, who are endeavoring to determine the long-range effects of overexposure to radiation.) Fallout from that first explosion in New Mexico also contaminated cornstalks in Indiana that were later converted into strawboard to make packing cartons; some of these found their way to Rochester, New York, where the Eastman Kodak people innocently used them to ship out a supply of film, which is exceptionally sensitive to radiation. The film was ruinously fogged. It is now standard practice for the A.E.C. to forewarn photographic-supply companies of impending test blasts, so that they can take certain well-established protective measures against possible fallout, but so far nobody has come up with any similar measures to alert the owners of cornstalks.
Others who appreciate advance notice of forthcoming shots include archeologists, who, if they failed to allow for fallout, might be off by several centuries in calculating the age of ancient relics on the basis of how much carbon 14—a radioactive isotope that is present in a constant amount in all living things and disintegrates at a known rate after death—they still contain. Uranium prospectors, too, like to be warned ahead of time; back in the days before the far-reaching effects of the tests were understood, more than one prospector was momentarily led to believe that he had at last come upon a bonanza when his Geiger counter set up a wild clicking in response to fallout.
The manner in which a bomb is detonated also strongly affects the intensity of its fallout. If the bomb is exploded at a high altitude—high enough, that is, so that the mass of luminescent gas known as the fireball, from which rises the now all too familiar mushroom, does not touch the earth’s surface—its radioactivity has nothing to condense with except whatever dust it encounters in the air and the vaporized bomb casing. In such instances—and all shots of any consequence within the continental limits of the United States are of this kind—the dust and vapors, swept upward by the blast to an altitude of possibly forty thousand feet, are carried away on the strong winds of that altitude, which, owing to the earth’s rotation, are generally westerly, and may remain aloft for months. By the time the dust particles finally settle, they may well have travelled clear around the globe, becoming so thoroughly scattered and having so thoroughly dissipated their radioactivity in the atmosphere that they are presumed to be harmless. The higher the explosion the better, from the point of view of the eventual effects of its fallout, for the descent of the dust particles is apt to be hastened if they happen into a formation of rain clouds, which they are not likely to encounter until they have drifted down to within twenty thousand feet of the earth.
A surface or near-surface shot—the sort the United States restricts to the Pacific area—is something else again; indeed, radiologically speaking, it is an extremely dangerous proposition. Immediately after such a shot, the bomb’s fireball (the biggest one yet reported measured from three to four miles in diameter) sucks up millions of tons of material from the surface of the earth—rocks, sand, vegetation, water—as it rises, almost with the speed of sound. Moving up through the stem of the mushroom to its head, this hideously contaminated, or “hot,” material also soars up into the stratosphere, where it too is eventually blown away by the wind. But, unlike the radioactive dust of a high-altitude shot, much of this debris is far too heavy to be blown around the world. The winds that beneficently carry the dust of high-altitude shots such great distances blow the fallout from a ground-level shot only far enough away from the testing area to make it a menace. The debris falls rapidly while still intensely radioactive, polluting to a probably lethal degree what the A.E.C. has described as a “comparatively localized” area. Just outside the comparatively localized area, however, lies a much larger one that is definitely jeopardized by the fallout from a ground shot, for during the first few hours after the explosion some of the lighter fragments of debris spread out over thousands of square miles. Given reliable meteorological information, scientists can predict the size and general course of this fallout with a fair amount of accuracy, but, owing to the different weights of the bits and pieces that constitute the mass, and the erratic nature of the winds in the upper regions, they can’t do much more than that. For whatever comfort it might afford people who fear the fallout from surface shots, Dr. Willard F. Libby, a commissioner of the A.E.C., a while ago ventured a guess that in the event of a thermonuclear attack on the United States the enemy would set off “a large fraction” of its bombs high above the earth, since the blast and heat damage of aerial explosions is tactically superior to that of ground blasts. “In other words, the fallout problem might be minimized by the enemy’s attempt to maximize the blast and thermal effects,” Dr. Libby said.
The fireball of a very large thermonuclear bomb that was set off on March 1st of last year on a coral island in a lagoon at Bikini Atoll touched the surface of the earth. This was the shot that made the world fallout-conscious, and it earned its sorry distinction not only by dangerously contaminating seven thousand square miles of land and sea—an area somewhat larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island together—but by injuring people who were nearly a hundred miles away from the site. The Commission naturally felt deep chagrin at this outcome of the blast, especially since it had gone to great pains to make sure that no lives would be endangered. Weeks before the bomb was detonated, the Commission saw to it that marine and aviation navigational publications printed announcements of the forthcoming test and gave their readers explicit information about the boundaries of a thirty-thousand-square-mile danger zone that had been decided upon. For days prior to the blast, aircraft crisscrossed the zone and the waters adjacent to it to warn away shipping. A meteorological study of the whole region was made, in which special attention was paid to the behavior of winds at all relevant altitudes. “The area for which meteorological data had to be compiled and analyzed was far greater than just that thirty-thousand-square-mile danger zone,” an official of the A.E.C. said later. “In fact, it was greater than that of the United States, and we had only eight or ten observation stations to cover it.” In its report of the shot and of what went wrong with it, the A.E.C. made the mildly consolatory point that without the knowledge derived from the test “we would have been in ignorance of the extent of the effects of radioactive fallout and, therefore . . . much more vulnerable to the dangers from fallout in the event an enemy should resort to radiological warfare against us.” In addition to the unanticipated lessons it learned about the vagaries of fallout during the March 1st test, the Commission collected some grim testimony as to its potency, expressed in terms of roentgens—one of the units in which radiation is measured. Having previously established that a person exposed to a total accumulation of four hundred and fifty roentgens in the arbitrarily set period of thirty-six hours stands only a 50 percent chance of surviving, the Commission found that during the first thirty-six hours after the March 1st blast, anyone on Bikini, ten miles down-wind from the explosion, would have been exposed to five thousand roentgens, and even if he had had sufficient warning to get to Rongelap Atoll, a hundred miles to the east, the roentgen count against him in at least one section of that tiny island would still have been twenty-three hundred.