The Defining Generation
It is sometimes reported in history that upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe during the American Civil War, President Lincoln greeted her with the words, " So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!" If fact, there is no evidence that indeed the President uttered that line. Nevertheless the rumor of that thought that has endured for more than a century does in fact illustrate the validity of another common quotation, "The pen is mightier than the sword," or the simple precept that the things which entertain us may also motivate us.
Throughout the history of the human race talented people have been highly prized for their talents with word, pen, and music that can provide diversion from the tragedies of society, or even from the mundane existence of daily life. Entertainment is a critical part of our development as individuals and as societies. From the early scribes who penned the history of ancient civilizations to the performers of P.T. Barnum's early circuses, men, women, and children have found fascination, humor and diversion in entertainment.
the primary function of entertainment is just that…diversion from every
day life…there is a history wherein entertainment has often served as a
call to activism. The pen of Thomas Paine incited patriotic calls for
revolution in 1775 and, during the darkest early year of the American
Revolutionary War, sustained the populace with stirring accounts of
freedom fighters. The oratorical skills of Frederick Douglas addressed the
wrongness of slavery and Harriet Beecher Stowe's now-famous novel
"Uncle Tom's Cabin" certainly fanned flames of passion that
erupted in a Civil War to abolish slavery. Newspapers flourished in the
late 19th century, not simply as a means of reading to stay abreast of
current events, but as a form of entertainment. Embellishments of
competing newspapers in the late 1800s with headlines that would rival
today's tabloids resulted in what we have come to know as Yellow
Journalism. In 1898 American society hung on every story printed about
events in Cuba, including outlandish tales of the nation's Spanish rulers
cannibalizing the local populace, much like later generations would be
fascinated with the story of Hannibal Lecter. Such entertaining stories
made taking our nation to war with
To be fair however, historically activist-entertainment has usually been a very minor part of the entertainment industry. Logging camps stories of legendary heroes or scary boogiemen were designed only to break the boredom of lonely nights. Dime store novels of Wild West cowboys, while often based upon true characters, were written with usually fun but fictitious story lines to captivate the attention of young boys. Romance novels gave young girls the perfect love to hope for, and married women the idyllic romance they wished they could have found.
Every generation has developed and welcomed its own genre of entertainment, usually pushing the boundaries of acceptability. During medieval periods when court jesters, the stand up comedians of the era, failed to draw appropriate laughter or crossed the boundaries of appropriateness (like insulting the Royal Family), punishment could be swift and deadly. Not so in later years as entertainment continued to evolve and as artisans pushed the envelope. It is also generally true that as each generation developed its own brand of entertainment, at least for the last century it was frowned upon by an older generation that asked rhetorically, "What's this younger generation coming to."
There can be little doubt that young people coming of age in the Roaring Twenties shocked and dismayed their own parents, perhaps no less than their grandchildren growing up in the 1960s shocked and dismayed the children of those same Flappers who grew up during a heady time of fun and frolic. But the carefree world of that period came to an abrupt halt when our nation was plunged into the deep tragedy of the Great Depression in 1929. Over the next decade the one diversion from pain, poverty and hunger was the Saturdays on which a child could scrounge a nickel and enjoy a comedic hour on the big screen of the local theater.
the comedy of Charlie Chaplain, the Three Stooges, the Little Rascals, and
others helped a generation of children born in the 1920s forget
momentarily the pain of the 1930s, when those same children came of age it
was to face a world at war. Art came to imitate life, or perhaps define
it, as the United States Government reached out to
the first of these movies which often combined entertainment with a
message was the early 7-part series directed primarily by Frank Capra and
titled "Why We Fight." The true intent of these films is nowhere
more evident than the closing lines containing the quotation of Army Chief
of Staff General George C. Marshall, "The victory of the democracies
can only be complete with utter defeat of the war machines of
thoroughly was the movie entertainment business intertwined with the
military effort to save our world, the U.S. Army Air Forces leased the
the entertainment industry became critical to the successful prosecution
of World War II is undeniable. The patriotism of
movies remained popular in the 1950s as the Greatest Generation justly
recalled and celebrated their achievements in the World War. Unlike most
such movies produced during the war when the heroic man in uniform was
often the "unknown but patriotic farm boy from
Increasingly also, that new medium of television boomed in those post-war decades. Young boys and girls of the Defining Generation thrilled every Saturday morning to the inspiring, All-American stories of The Lone Ranger, Superman, and the pleasant singing and positive messages of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Sunday evenings were filled with tunes reminiscent of World War II on Lawrence Welk, and the Wonderful World of Walt Disney. Monday through Friday television's evening Family Hour literally defined the word "family" according to the American Dream. "Leave it to Beaver," "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet," and "Father Knows Best" taught us how we were supposed to live as Americans. Though plot-lines changed the underlying theme was always the same. In the ideal American home dad worked hard for a living while mom did the domestic chores in her well-equipped modern kitchen, and the kids studied in school to insure their own success. Everything revolved around family, mom emerging from the kitchen each evening in dress and high heels to welcome dad home, while the kids sat dutifully at the table finishing their homework. In a sense, some might argue, these shows became a propaganda genre in their own right, defining success based upon material gain and traditional familial roles. Some might even recall those "Happy Days" by noting that for a time, entertainment lost its edginess.
By the mid-50s however, a storm was "brewing in paradise" as children of the Defining Generation entered their teens and began asking pointed questions, often to receive answers they found less than direct. Their first steps of rebellion were probably first noted as they redefined the music of their own era, flocking to listen to Rock and Roll while mom and dad shook their heads in dismay. Furthermore, it often seemed that the more mom and dad objected, the more it only added fuel to the fire and inspired the young to further test the boundaries of what the older generation believed appropriate.
the early 1960s a 35-year-old comedian named Lenny Bruce (Leonard Alfred
Schneider) began drawing a following among older teens with his more than
edgy and utterly profane, push-the-envelope brand of stand-up comedy. His
repeated use of the "F-word" would today be considered
commonplace in comedy, but in 1960 it was utter blasphemy. On
"Liberation" in the '60s came to mean much more than granting Civil Rights to all or freeing women from traditional roles. It also came to symbolize a growing openness about old values and taboo subjects like sex. The research work of William Masters and Virginia E. Johnson, which began in 1957, took sex out of the darkness and plastered previously untouchable subjects in the pages of leading American publications. College frat boys proudly displayed issues of "Playboy Magazine," which began publication in 1953, openly on the desks in their dorm rooms. A symbol of their new freedom and perhaps also a symbol of status, their actions were in stark contrast to those of their father's who kept "Playboy" hidden out of sight in a tool drawer in the garage.
1963 Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique told young women that
the act of sex whether with a partner or self-fulfilled, was not
necessarily an evil thing, and that it could in fact, be as pleasurable
for a woman as well as it was for a man. Coupled with availability of the
"Pill," a far more convenient and certainly surer form of
contraception than a Roaring
Twenties' Coke purge, as well as a growing hippie movement that
preached free love and open sexuality, it became a period of sexual
revolution. Art soon began to imitate life as
examination of the evolution of entertainment in the '60s would be
complete without a view of the role music came to play in society in
general, and particularly for a new generation. When the Beatles came to
entertainment evolved and pushed-the-envelope during the sixties, building
to the climactic 3-day concert outside
It light of the Pandora's Box the Defining Generation released decades ago, it might be easy to focus only on that which was negative and blame ourselves for the problems of a new generation. But they would have defined their own culture of entertainment, even had we not sought as a generation to define ourselves and our time so liberally. Accepting the good with the bad, it must also be remembered that as entertainment breached tradition and social custom, in its activism it also began to address serious issues in American society that had long been ignored.
Furthermore, not to be forgotten from that period are other more positive reflections of our thoughts and our time: songs of peace and love, ballads of hope, and the search for the Dawning of the Age of Aquarius. One of the most popular songs of our era, holding the Number One spot on the charts for six weeks in 1970, was Simon and Garfunkel reminding us:
"When you're weary, feeling small,
The Defining Generation: Copyright © 2006 by Doug and Pam Sterner
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