What we can learn from the 1950s

Posted on: 28 September 2016

To many, 1950s America represented a decade of carefully manicured suburban lawns and harmonious nuclear families. However Dr Daniel Geary, the Mark Pigott Associate Professor in American history, explained to a packed Paccar Theatre recently that there was a lot more going on behind the scenes.

At his public lecture, ‘From Little Richard to John Wayne: American popular culture in the 1950s’, Dr Geary used the examples of these two icons to illustrate the dynamism of American popular culture of the time, and highlighted what a rich field of scholarly enquiry they represent.

Little Richard helped popularise rhythm-and-blues music to white audiences. Up to then R&B records had mostly been bought by African Americans and Hispanics. When rock and roll came along in the 1950s, it represented an unprecedented intermingling of racial, ethnic and class identities. Indeed this was happening at the exact moment at which the modern civil rights movement was emerging.

At first glance, John Wayne seems to reflect traditional American values and classic masculinity. While there is certainly much truth to this, Wayne and the characters he played were much more complicated than is usually acknowledged.

In what is critically acknowledged as Wayne’s greatest performance, The Searchers, the portrait of Wayne as a vengeful racist suggests that his characters were not always meant to be emulated. 

It also suggests that, after World War II, like the fans of Little Richard, some fans of Wayne were rethinking the ideas of white supremacy that had long reigned in the US through re-examining the legacy of the conquest of the American West. 

Mark Pigott and Daniel Geary at the Paccar Theatre

Earlier in the evening, Professor Jane Ohlmeyer, Director of Trinity Long Room Hub, welcomed a full house, which included Mark Piggot, to the Paccar Theatre in the Science Gallery, saying it was a great way to start the academic year with such an interesting public lecture.

Provost, Dr Patrick Prendergast, in his introductory remarks made reference to the enduring nostalgia many still have towards the 1950s “when popular American culture became global culture”. He also congratulated all those present for having the good sense to reserve their place early for the event, which was booked out in advance.

In his concluding remarks, Dr Geary, a popular recipient of a Provost’s Teaching Award in 2015, concluded that the United States today remains a complex and divided society and culture. It is one in which questions of racial identity remain paramount – as they were in the 1950s – not least in current presidential politics.

Little Richard and John Wayne were not only great entertainers whose works have stood the test of time, he said, they also enable us to understand American politics, culture and society past and present.

  • Dr Daniel Geary is the Mark Pigott Associate Professor in American history. His areas of expertise include 20th century American history, American politics, American popular culture, race, ethnicity, and civil rights.




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