David Halberstam

Not the bobby-socks-and-barbecue fest of Grease or The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, the '50s, according to Halberstam, was one of the most tumultuous, dynamic and far-reaching decades of the century. In an eminently readable style, the Pultizer-prizewinning journalist and best-selling author of The Best and the Brightest and The Powers That Be tunnels below familiar surfaces (the game-show scandals, the Korean War, school integration, the U2 spy plane affair, Nixon, Brando) to reveal the self-confidence and paranoia, liberality and conformity, that defined the decade.

While Halberstam focuses on American ingenuity and ambition—compellingly profiling men such as Kemmons Wilson, founder of Holiday Inn; Ed Cole, the maverick CM engineer who helped make V8 engines the industry standard; and Rosser Reeves, father of the brisk hard-sell TV commercial—he also explores the undercurrents of racial conflict, McCarthyism, covert CIA operations and the rising manipulative power of television. A rare kind of history book—a page-turner with a message—The Fifties shows how these forces exploded in the '60s in a hail of dashed expectations, racial resentments and youthful rebellion. To see why the '60s ignited, read The Fifties. (Villard, $27.50)

by Brett Harvey

Halberstam's portrait of a muscular mid-century America only passingly acknowledges the frustrations of women. Harvey's interviews with 92 women who were in their late teens to mid-20s during the decade show how the exaltation of homemaking, motherhood and va-va-voom sexuality constricted women's lives as surely as pointy bras and tight girdles bound their bodies.

Harvey, a free-lance journalist and author of four children's books, asks her subjects about dating, birth control, abortion, careers, education and marriage. The candid responses describe the stigma of unwed motherhood ("My sister got pregnant so she was hidden away in the back room like an animal," recalls a Newark woman), or I he ubiquity of what was not yet called sexual harassment. Poor, privileged, black, lesbian, urban, suburban, rural, all these women speak of fear, dependence and lack of choices, but they also reveal a sustaining tenacity and resourcefulness. (HarperCollins, $20)

THE WAKING DREAM: PHOTOGRAPHY'S FIRST CENTURY

From its very beginnings the camera did not live up to expectations. It was supposed to be an impersonal recording instrument, stamping out industrial-strength realities like a steam press. Instead it proved to be a very subtle dream machine, spinning reveries, myths and poetry as well as the occasional true-life adventure. The shifting forms of the dream (ill this book, which was prepared to accompany the debut of the Oilman Paper Company Collection of photograph) at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art. The pictures cover the 100 years from 1839, when the British gentleman William Henry Fox Talbot and the French stage designer Louis Daguerre separately unveiled their different methods for making still images. From their chemistry sets would flow the twilit seascapes of Gustave Le Gray, Nadar's sharply limned portraits of Parisian-culture stars and the Depression-era docudramas of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans.

Though the Gilman collection, which was put together by the company's chairman, Howard Gilman, and curator, Pierre Apraxine, manages to represent most of the familiar names from photography's first century, the chief pleasure of ambling through this book is sampling the unexpected. Main people are familiar with Biassaï's scenes of Parisian nightlife in the 1930s. But how many know his dark and beckoning shot taken through the tunnel formed by a bridge that arches the Seine? And the mysterious formal portrait of an elegantly dressed woman seen from behind offers the strange thrill of a surrealist masterpiece by Magritte—but it was taken in 1862 by a now forgotten Frenchman, Onesipe Aguado. Assembling a collection is a bit like making a soup. There's a basic recipe, but the final product depends on personal taste and what's available in the market. It's the unexpected ingredients in this one that make it worth sampling. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Abrams, $60)

by Bob Greene

Greene brings to his first novel the same warm, folksy style that graces his syndicated Chicago newspaper column. All Summer Long is the story of three childhood pals who meet again at their 25th high school reunion and, in a kind of triple-header mid-life crisis, decide to leave their families and careers, jump in the car and drive cross country all summer.

This is less a journey into America than a journey into their shared past. As Ben (a disaffected TV journalist), Michael (a quiet high school teacher) and Ronnie (a rich CEO) savor their memories of growing up together in the '50s and '60s in a tranquil Ohio town, they are in fact reassessing their present lives and examining their personal successes and failures as sons, husbands and fathers.

On one level, Greene, a 46-year-old native of Bexley, Ohio, has created a paean to a sheltered, small-town America that no longer exists. Beyond that, the novel is a testament to the homespun values of family and friendship that endure no matter how tar you roam from Small Town, U.S.A. Despite a tendency to be a bit too sweet, Summer is as refreshing as a tall glass of iced tea on a July afternoon. (Double-day, $23)

by Anita Shreve

Shreve's third novel is a lyrical and poetic rendering of a middle-aged affair set in motion by a jolt of memory. Charles Callahan is sifting through the Sunday paper when he sees a photo of a woman poet he recognizes as the girl he fell in love with at a Catholic summer camp 31 years before. He covers the photo with his arm, shielding it from his wife, and his infidelity with Siân Richards begins.

Through a series of letters and sexual encounters, Charles and Siân stoke the fires of memory and resurrect the past, their desire "fraught with endless complications: a maze of responsibilities and commitments, deceptions and betrayals." Both are bred-in-the-bone Catholics, married with children. Their lives unravel as their relationship evolves.

Where Or When is a hauntingly written study of time and eros, but the plight of the lovers inspires little empathy. Their involvement seems selfish, the result of failure and weakness more than passion. Their end is not shocking but merely inevitable. (Harcourt Brace, $19.95)

>LOOKING FOR THE LITTLE-KNOWN LINKS

"I'M PARTICULARLY PROUD," SAYS DAVID Halberstam, 59, speaking of the six years of work that went into The Fifties, "of how I've traced the roots of McCarthyism to Harry Truman's victory in 1948. Republicans had accepted their defeats against Roosevelt, but they didn't expect to lose to Truman, 'that little haberdasher.' Thomas Dewey ran a high-road campaign in '48, but when he lost, the animals came out of their cages. American politics became very ugly. Democrats were accused of being partners with Communism, traitors to the country, and this affected the fabric of the nation. One of the direct reasons Lyndon Johnson took us into Vietnam was because he didn't want to let the Republicans accuse the Democrats of being 'soft on Communism.'

"Another conclusion I came to," says the author, who lives in Manhattan with his wife, Jean, their daughter Julia, 12, and their dog, Winnie, "was that scientific advances fueled a change in morals. The development of the birth-control pill, among other things, helped open the way for Tennessee Williams and Hugh Hefner's Playboy to affect the population.

"Everyone says the country is more cautious now, but the victories of the '60s have given us higher levels of freedom in personal lifestyle. Things jump out at you from the '50s, whether it's Ed Sullivan wanting to keep Elvis Presley off the air, or Dean Rusk, then head of the Rockefeller Foundation, cutting Alfred Kinsey off from this tiny amount of money funding his extraordinary research into sexual behavior. It's a much more tolerant country now."

  • Contributors:
  • Louisa Ermelino,
  • Richard Lacayo,
  • Melanie Kirkpatrick.