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Happy days of despair

What can keep good times from becoming banal and empty?

Happy days of despair

(George Marks/Retrofile/Getty Images)

Revolutionary Road, the novel and movie, takes its title from a street in suburban Connecticut, ca. 1955. Every weekday Frank Wheeler, age 30, takes a commuter train into the city, where he works regular hours at his office before returning to Revolutionary Hill Estates with its grassy lawns and nicely spaced, comfortable homes. There his beautiful wife April is cooking a dinner she did not have to shoot, pluck, or skin, which will more than satisfy her family’s hunger, and after a leisurely evening watching television or entertaining friends, they will sleep on smooth mattresses with no bugs. What’s wrong with this picture?

Everything. Frank and April feel like the walking dead, locked into a meaningless routine. Their longing for something that will make them “feel alive” leads to screaming matches in the bedroom. We expect this as soon as we see those smiling suburban lawns; there was nothing as bland and stultifying as life in the ’50s. 

But why? We like comfort and leisure and company and food; those things were available to more Americans than ever before. We like employment, and there were jobs. Not exciting, perhaps, but worthwhile and adequately paid. Why couldn’t Frank and April just be happy?

According to the novel’s author, Richard Yates, a “blind desperate clinging to safety and security at any price” held their generation captive. But those who castigate the decade don’t seem to consider that safety and security were finally within reach for the average American. Men didn’t have to labor under a hot sun, and women didn’t have to fear that their children would suffer malnutrition or die from a common illness. Electric washing machines made the drudgery of laundry day a distant memory, and a few easy payments would purchase a Lay-Z-Boy recliner. After years of deprivation and war, Americans sank down into their new upholstery with a highball in one hand and a Lucky Strike in the other. Despair set in almost immediately.

Our present-day ingratitude may have taken root during the 1950s, when we thanked ourselves for our new prosperity instead of God.

At least that’s the narrative: Elites were already sneering at the tract house and the two-kids-and-a-dog ideal that was supposedly smothering America. Books like The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and The Lonely Crowd hinted that postwar prosperity had stolen our soul. Suburbia, which would have looked like heaven to a migrant farm worker in the 1930s, became the symbol of middle-class hell—Betty Friedan’s “comfortable concentration camp.” After surmounting Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of material needs, the Wheelers of America felt “empty.”

I doubt that the ’50s were actually as blind and bland as they’re often portrayed, but something was going on: a subterranean Revolutionary Road that roared to the surface in the mid-’60s. It was the next generation. Once they’d shaken up the world their parents built, Baby Boomers settled down to their own surly dissatisfactions.

There’s nothing new under the sun, says the Preacher. He tried it all: Vanity of vanities! Nothing satisfied, but dissatisfaction is only the flower of the problem. The seed is our own ungrateful hearts.

Ingratitude is preliminary to going astray—see Romans 1:21. It’s the wellspring of human depravity since the beginning of time, but our present-day ingratitude may have taken root during the 1950s, when we thanked ourselves for our new prosperity instead of God. Then wondered why worshipping that pale plaster idol felt so banal.

In his introduction to a new essay collection called The Seven Deadly Virtues, editor Jonathan Last quotes Cicero: “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues but the parent of all others.” It is gratitude, Last goes on to say, “that allows us to appreciate what is good, what should be defended and cultivated.”

If any particular noise defines our age, it is complaint—the thin, sour tone we use to describe social trends, genetically enhanced foods, movie remakes, and (above all) government. Given that there’s plenty to complain about this Thanksgiving, there’s at least as much to celebrate—not in a perfunctory “I’m grateful for” ceremony around the table, but in countless deliberate choices to look to God’s fullness instead of our emptiness. Maybe we can just be happy.



  • William Peck 1958's picture
    William Peck 1958
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 01:31 pm

    keeping in line with the generic theme of the '50's (comfort, security, etc.), this was borne of the Depression, but it sired the restless revolutionaries of the 60's. <sigh>

  • socialworker
    Posted: Mon, 04/11/2016 01:31 pm

    This should be read around the Thanksgiving table before everyone starts eating and bellyaching.