Audio ©2010 Alabama Public Radio
Phillip D. Beidler
The University of Alabama Press, 2010 Philip Beidler had built up a considerable reputation as a critic in the fields of Alabama literature and the literature of the Vietnam experience before he began writing extensively out of his own Vietnam experience in Late Thoughts on an Old War (2004) and American Wars, American Peace (2007).
Now, in a third volume of 16 essays, plus Introduction and Conclusion, written at such speed that he didn't even bother to have them published individually in periodicals, Beidler has produced a combination of memoir and cultural history of his childhood years, which are also mine.
The Victory Album is about that period we call the '50s. This starts with the end of WWII and ends with 1960, or the assassination of President Kennedy or of Martin Luther King, though some believe that America's era of cultural and military dominance has never ended.
To many, the '50s are thought of as a Golden Age, when the nuclear family was intact, children respected and obeyed their parents, we did not lock our doors at night, crime and drugs were nearly unknown, religion was a private matter and becoming more ecumenical, and everyone prospered and bought a house on Long Island.
However, as in a lot of literature and song, and especially in the beat and hippie literature of the '60s, the '50s are described as boring, staid, conservative, somnolent—the "Eisenhower years."
Of course, Beidler testifies, those years are not easily comprehended, in fact not simple, but fraught with tensions and contradictions.
In his Introduction, Beidler lays out his main points. The U.S. had won the war. Our nation had not, literally, been a battlefield. The Great Depression was over but certainly not forgotten, so an orgy of buying and enjoying was somewhat tempered by the memory of Hard Times. Americans had a moment in history when it seemed anything was possible.
Unfortunately, the moment of euphoria was, to those paying attention, brief. Much of Eastern Europe went communist; China was "lost"; democracy in Greece, France, Italy and Turkey was threatened to varying degrees; the Russians got the bomb; Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed to see Commies everywhere and in fact some of them were real; and, before very long at all, the French were driven out of Indochina, and we were at war in Korea.
Beidler also reminds his readers that The Good Life after the Good War was not equally good for everyone. The role of women in the workplace may have even suffered a setback as wives gave up their jobs and stayed at home. Meaningful Integration was still far off, north and south, and race prejudice had certainly not been eliminated.
Beidler covers all these issues and more in splendid individual essays.
He also spends a good deal of time on cultural matters like television, movies and popular music.
It is, as always, impossible to comment on all the essays, but a couple caught my attention especially.
Beidler, who likes pairings in his essays, comparisons and contrasts as students might say, writes of Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower. He is convincing in his conclusion that in avoiding a MacArthur presidency, America dodged a bullet. Beidler describes MacArthur as wildly brave and efficient through most of his career then "at the end… godlike and delusional in the same measure, the creation of his own fine megalomania." I was also amused to learn that when MacArthur attended West Point, his mother spent the four years just off campus in the Hotel Thayer, watching over her son.
His essay on the book and movie On the Beach is excellent. That movie, set in Australia as all human life is being extinguished by earth-circling clouds of radiation, is a magnificent way to talk about the anxieties of the '50s, a state of anxiety that is not over yet.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio on June 14, 2010. Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m.