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« Programming note: Mad Man live-blogging Mad Men | Main | Don't have a cow, man, but... »


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Nancy Nall

Reading this, it occurs to me that everything I know about this period in New York I learned from other writers, so who knows if they nailed it? They nailed the image, anyway.

Good comments over at newcritics. I'm going to start watching it for the food, myself. In the first episode, the puu-puu platter, in the second, the tomato-juice course! I remember that from old-style steakhouses in my youth. It was served in a juice glass placed in a little bowl. Perfect.


Very interesting piece. I wasn't home to watch Mad Men last night, and I haven't checked out the live-blogging yet, but when I watched yesterday's DVR'd episode on the exercise bike this morning, I found myself wondering whether the show wasn't merely giving the writers a chance to air their own dirty laundry under pretense of reproducing "pre-PC" conditions. This struck me most forcibly during the aerosol deodorant scene, where the boys half-undressed one of their colleagues and attacked him with the can, one of them saying something like (I'm misremembering the exact words) "let him be the girl." It was such an unpleasant statement that it almost rang false.

Not that I don't believe that there were men who felt, thought, or acted that way (hey, I'm old enough to remember weatherman Tex Antoine getting canned for following up a news story on rape by saying "If it's gonna happen, you might as well lie back and enjoy it"). But the show is hitting us over the head with the callous disregard of these men for women, minorities, whatever. And it just begins to feel like the writers are working out some stuff of their own.

Ken Muldrew

Karen wrote, "it just begins to feel like the writers are working out some stuff of their own."

Maybe they're just trying too hard to make corporate America from 1960 into another country; because, it's not, you know? Expats abound. You can find one within a couple of minutes no matter where you are, and there's nothing foreign about them. Strange fashions abound in any age. The sexism of the 50's is abominable to us, especially those aspects that were enacted simply out of fashions and social norms. But if we were to tell those people, those repugnant sexist pigs, that people in the 80's would make personal greed fashionable, and pursue it as virtuous behavior, they would be no less shocked at the foreign behavior of the future as we are of the past.

Tom W.

Well it's an excellent point about the un-real world.

Taking it to, say, the Sopranos - known for "realism" - reveals a lot. The body counts for instance: not nearly so high in reality. Hell, it'd be front page of The News..."Gang War Rages on for Decade."

The Sopranos fashions as well - much more 70s than 00s, very carefully created.

So it's fantasy, a "realism" that sparks our interest, to be sure.

I didn't think of it till this morning, but the attention to recent period detail reminds me a great deal of Crime Story, that short-lived 80s cop series.

Ken Houghton

I'm still waiting anxiously for the film of Revolutionary Road.

Unless most of the housewives are taking more pills than John Belushi, it's not the real 1950s. ("How you going keep 'em down on the farm?" Tranquilize them. Just ask Gary Becker.)


I'd argue that what we know of that period comes not just from fiction, but from books like The Organization Man and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, not to mention Peter Drucker's early works on management.


"This is to say that while both Cheever and Yates wrote about the suburban and office worker worlds of the late 1950s and early 1960s they were not either of them truly of those worlds."

On at least a trivial level, yes, Yates was most certainly part of the suburban and office worker world. Though he did publish a few short stories earlier, he didn't publish his first novel, Revolutionary Road, until he was 35 and had supported himself by a decade of working largely in PR for Ingersoll-Rand.

" [Cheever] additionally pretended to his family not to be a writer at all. He used to put on a suit and tie every morning, say goodbye to his wife and kids, and go out the door as if he was leaving to catch the train to his office, then go down into the basement of their apartment building where he had set up a table and typewriter to write all day, "returning" home at the time other 9 to 5 dads were returning from their real office jobs."

You're confusing several different periods of Cheever's life. He did do this for a short period when his family was living in New York, and his apartment was too cramped for him to work there. (He wasn't pretending to commute to New York, he lived there). His children were very young at the time. His wife was very well aware he was a writer (indeed, except for a year in the WPA and teaching writing, Cheever never had any other jobs whatsoever) - she first met him at his literary agent's office. Most of his life Cheever worked right from his home and his family knew very well that he was a writer. His wife would generally proof his manuscripts and he would apparantly follow her literary advice.

Cheever was also very socially gregarious throughout his life (partially fueled by a large alcohol intake, but still), as Yates was before his life took a nose-dive.


And Cheever and Yates were hardly the only ones to depict the environment.

Alison Lurie - Nowhere City
Seymour Epstein - Leah
Joseph Heller - Something Happened
Evan Connell - Diary of a Rapist (his earlier novels Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge depict an upper class suburban environment in the 1920s-1940s)
John Updike - Rabbit, Run
Patricia Highsmith - Cry of the Owl, The Blunderer
David Goodis - The Blonde on the Corner

Exiled in New Jersey

This is a really interesting piece. I was getting ready to unleash myself on the world back then. One memory I have was seeing a film, No Down Payment, with a buddy. We were made 15 and it made us wonder if all our little lives were what they seemed. I have this distinct memory of my 'Diner' type crowd hoping Kennedy would win and get rid of do-nothing Ike. I think I could make an unending list of thoughts from those days.

I watch Law & Order episodes from 1995-2000 and find this same wondering: were the attitudes of McCoy, Briscoe, Angie or Jill really indicative of that time.

Dan Leo

Burritolad, I'm so glad you mentioned Highsmith's Cry of the Owl and The Blunderer, and I wish I had thought to mention them in my frantic live-blogging last night. I know I'm in a minority, but I think I prefer her to Yates, and I definitely prefer her to Cheever, who drives me crazy with his prettiness.

But, y'know, there's no reason to look to fine literature for a depiction of the mores of those times, and I was trying to get this across in my quick blurbs at Newcritics. Just watch any movie or TV show from that period, any one at all. One thing I like about movies and TV shows is that they are the perfect time capsules. A show from 1960 will look to the trained bleary eye (mine!) like a show from 1960 even if it's depicting the Old West or the Roaring 20s. And, of course, Mad Men looks exactly like a show made in 2007 even though it depicts 1960.

But Lance is right, accuracy in recreating the time is not what's important, what's important is the story-telling. We can enjoy an old Hitchcock or Twilight Zone episode that rather cheaply portrays 1890s England or the Planet Xenon, because the story is told well. It all comes down to the writing.


"The flaw in this argument is that most of what we "know" about the lives of kings and queens we know because Shakespeare told us about it.

And the odds are he made it all up."

Shakespeare was the dramatist and player (thus, a shareholder) in The King's Men - i.e. the theater company King James himself gave his patronage to. They performed at court from eight to 22 times a year. They would also give special performances before foreign dignitaries of the highest rank including during state visits by the King of Denmark, the wedding celebrations of King James' daughter to the King of Bohemia, and so on. Before King James became their patron, their previous patron was the Lord Chamberlain Henry Carey, a very powerful and connected politician indeed - his mother was a sister of Anne Boleyn and he himself was rumored to be Henry VIII's bastard son.

The King's Men became a very wealthy theater company and was eventually appraised to be worth about 22,000 pounds. To give an idea of the size of that sum, the Lord Chamberlain Henry Carey's pension was 400 pounds a year.

Shakespeare knew many courtiers, there are letters from some of his childhood friends describing their extensive dealings at court. We know Shakespeare knew the Digges family and Sir Dudley Digges was Ambassador to Russia, Ambassador to Holland, Master of the Rolls and held numerous other high posts.


"No Down Payment"

That was so depressing, more truthful than the Doris Day/Rock Hudson farces of the day, but depressing. I'm not sure if Tony Randall ever played such a dark character again.


"A show from 1960 will look to the trained bleary eye (mine!) like a show from 1960 even if it's depicting the Old West or the Roaring 20s. And, of course, Mad Men looks exactly like a show made in 2007 even though it depicts 1960."

Amanda Blake as Kitty Russell was certainly decked out in Mary Quant-esque make-up even though she was on the frontier.

As for the men last evening, you know what popped into my mind? They all looked too healthy. They needed at least a couple who were showing the wear and tear of too many drinks and cigs.


I probably should mention that Cheever's brother was, in fact, an advertising man and a fairly prominent one until drinking degraded his career. Cheever knew the inside dope.


Shakespeare was a hack.
He took Thomas More's bio. of Richard III and created a villain for the ages. T. More was a child when R3 died, hence, his work was not based on his personal knowledge of R3. More and Shakespeare served as propagandists for the Tudors.


You give a citation to Faulkner, but not to L. P. Hartley?


"Socially gregarious and popular types like Henry James and Marcel Proust"--I'm not sure a man who locks himself up in a cork-lined room to write "A la recherche du temps perdu" ultimately qualifies as "socially gregarious", even though society was his milieu.

Dan Leo

Apparently M. Proust didn't completely lock himself away during his long writing of "À la récherche". His housekeeper Celeste recalled that he would occasionally go out to a party or dinner. And then there was the time when he hired some musicians to come to his apartment to play a particular piece of music he wanted to remember for his novel. But his health was so bad by the time he was writing his masterpiece that it was difficult for him to go out and about very much. Celeste also fondly remembered how he loved to have her sit by his bed and talk to him about her family and her doings. Her book is a great read for any Proust fan, or would-be Proust fan: "Monsieur Proust" by Celeste Albaret.


I agree with you, Lance, that Eleven Kinds of Loneliness may be America's Dubliners. My favorite Yates book, though,is Easter Parade, because he captures a woman's point of view so remarkably well.
If we're talking Fifties realism in the visual arts, try Douglas Sirk movies: Magnificent Obsession, Imitation of Life, All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind. The movies were melodramas, but the period touches were hyper-realistic. And with Rock Hudson, no less.


Linkmeister: I'd argue that what we know of that period comes not just from fiction, but from books like The Organization Man and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, not to mention Peter Drucker's early works on management.

Link, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit's a novel by Sloan Wilson, who also wrote some other good novels about the business world of the period. But the other books you mentioned do tell us about the rules people back then thought they were playing by or wanted to play by. We can know how people interacted. What I'm saying is that we can't know what they thought and felt about their interactions. All we can do is make our best reasonable guess. But those guesses are going to be more informed by what we think and feel than by anything else. Liberals in this part of the 21st Century are inclined to be very critical of life in the middle part of the last century. We've been taught to think of it as a cultural hell from which we were lucky to escape. Mad Men seems to have accepted that critique of the 50s and to play to our feelings about those times.

But two very good recent movies set in the same period don't include any of that anti-nostalgia, Capote and Good Night, and Good Luck. They have other axes to grind about the time, but neither one suggests that the relationships between the sexes was all a matter of men exploiting women. The women in the movies seem quite happy with their lives.

Are the movies or the TV show doing the better job of telling us about the attitudes of people back then?

I frankly don't know. But I don't care. Capote does the best job of telling a story and making me care about the characters. I don't know which one does the best job of telling me about life 50 years ago. For that, I'd rather trust to history books.



Aren't subways trains?

I didn't say Cheever's family believed his pretense. The pretense was more for his own benefit, I think, a way for him to try to feel normal. The fact that he felt a need to put on that show, even for a little while, is a clue that he didn't feel at home inside his own skin, and people who aren't at home inside their own skins generally aren't at home anywhere.

And what a writer knows, what he can know, and what he bothers to know are all different things. Add all that to what he needs to use to tell his stories and I think it's safe to say that whatever Shakespeare knew up close of life in the Elizabethan and early Jacobean courts probably didn't tie his hands very tightly when he was writing about life in Claudius' or Lear's or Macbeth's courts.

Through his brother Cheever had a window into a life very different than his own, but what did he see when he looked in that window, what specifically did he look at, and how long and how closely did he bother to look?

He wasn't interested in writing sociology. He wasn't interested in being the kind of documentarian novelist that Sloan Wilson, for one, tried to be.

All I'm saying is that Cheever and Yates were misfits who didn't much like the business and suburban worlds they wrote about and that they weren't inclined to tell us anything particularly complimentary about those worlds.


Speaking as a historian, you can't necessarily trust us to get the mentalities of the past right, either- we are just as embedded in our own historical context and limited by our sources as any producer of fiction.

But I think that fiction, especially fiction that purports to be realistic, can tell us more about the mentalities of the past than you're giving it credit to. It does, after all, have to make cultural sense to an audience. It has to speak to how people of its day saw the world it was describing if its going to have much degree of success. It may not describe a world as it really was, but it does have to describe a world as a segment of society wanted to think that it was. And that does tell us something about how people in the past thought.

In the case of Shakespeare, his most important patrons- the ones who kept his salary paid- knew the court very well. If Shakespeare was portraying a court that rang totally false to them, would they have continued to value his work? Especially given that questions of rulership were so central to so many of his plays. A lot of the common themes in his portrayals of the courts- say, the figure of the flatterer or the question of speaking truthfully- were very likely issues of great concern to people in the world of the court, and they would have noticed if he was getting it totally wrong or raising concerns that did not resonate with them. So while he may not have been giving a perfect portrayal of life in the court of Queen Elizabeth, he was not completely unconstrained in his depiction of court life. He was still limited by the constrains of what would ring true to an audience that actually knew court life.

Kevin Wolf

I'm trying to catch up with Mad Men online. Can't watch it live nor join the blogging.

Most of what I know of this period is from reading Thomas Frank. I should go back and reread.

Great post and comments.


"And what a writer knows, what he can know, and what he bothers to know are all different things. Add all that to what he needs to use to tell his stories and I think it's safe to say that whatever Shakespeare knew up close of life in the Elizabethan and early Jacobean courts probably didn't tie his hands very tightly when he was writing about life in Claudius' or Lear's or Macbeth's courts."

Well, since Lear and Macbeth are semi-mythical figures located deep in the past, there was no reason for Shakespeare to particularly ensure that Lear's or Macbeth's courts looked like a Celtic or an early medieval royal court or like the Jacobean court. I thought we were primarily discussing Shakespeare's history plays.

It's clear that Shakespeare wasn't closely following court procedures in his plays: minor servants discuss politics extensively with the highest dignitaries, nobles of the highest rank go into the kitchen and taste test the food and yell at the kitchen help and so on. But he didn't and couldn't just make anything up: he had to make money from the same rank of dignitaries as he was portraying in his plays. Clearly, he was extremely successful in capturing things of interest and things that rang true to kings, princes and high-ranking persons indeed - otherwise, the King's Men would have been easily replaced.


"All I'm saying is that Cheever and Yates were misfits who didn't much like the business and suburban worlds they wrote about and that they weren't inclined to tell us anything particularly complimentary about those worlds."

Well, it wasn't just Cheever and Yates - Updike, Alison Lurie, Seymour Epstein, Patricia Highsmith, Joseph Heller, Wilfrid Sheed and many others echoed their generally not positive opinions about 1950s/1960s business/suburban culture. And while Cheever and Yates came from similar backgrounds (genteely shabby WASP families who went to second tier boarding schools), that's not the case with Epstein, Highsmith, Heller or Sheed. Epstein wrote a book, The Successor, that is much more positive about blue collar work in the 1930s than Epstein's books about white collar work in the 1950s are.


I'd turn your observation about Shakespeare around about the realism of his portrayals of court. I've always dismissed the conspiracy theorists because the funniest and most realistic of his characters always were his commoners. Would someone who spent all their life at court be able to do that? Servants can observe the habits of their employers pretty closely. The employer (or at that time, master) seldom knows a thing about the servant.


I would add that there's tons of books written by the Ad Men themselves of roughly that period -- or at least many of the top ones, like David Ogilvy and Bill Bernbach.

Ogilvy peppered his book CONFESSIONS OF AN AD MAN with quotes like "The consumer isn't an idiot. She's your wife." and so on.

Granted, most of these books are "follow my path to success stories", from the heads of their companies. But they give a sense of what the business was like, as well.

(BTW, I'd rather read David Ogilvy, or Howard Gossage, than John Cheever any day.)

Professor Fate

I have not seen the show - I did ask my father who worked as a copy writer and accout exec. in madison Ave in the 60's in one of the go-go Mad ave agencies if he has seen the show and what he thought of it since it was his past they were talking about. He said he hadn't seen it and didn't plan on seeing it.

"you can't go home again" he said quoting Tomas Wolfe who no body seems to read anymore. I guess meaning that was then he is who he is now and what's the point.


great post, great point about writers being outsiders, and I LUV Mad Men.

But I have to say, I'm one of the crackpots that have come to believe that Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare.

And if anything, this post bolsters the case. One of the favorite alternates for Shakespeare is Edward de Vere, a likely gay, talented misfit in Elizabeth's Court.

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