January 19, 2017

Recovered history: The Silent Generation

Some things I’ve written about the silent generation

Sam Smith - Places such 47 Mt. Auburn brought Boston's poets, folksingers and the explicitly disenchanted to suggest into a mike or over expresso that the 1950s were not all they had been cracked up to be. It was a gentle message, because it carried little suggestion that there was anything we could or should do about it. We were strong on analysis and abysmal at action. We, the minority who felt something was wrong, were like dinghies come adrift, lacking the power to do more than to rock aimlessly in inchoate discontent. I bought a beret and shades, which went well with my cigarillos and my Balkan Sobrani-filled pipe, but had not the slightest idea what to do with them other than to feel slightly superior, somewhat existential, and probably condemned to a future in which one could expect to achieve little except the maintenance of personal honor and the avoidance of banality.

It was, after all, what we were being taught at the Brattle Theatre. The Brattle, two years before I arrived at Harvard, began running Humphrey Bogart films in repertoire throughout reading period. We gathered faithfully and repeatedly to learn from the master, mimicking such lines as "I stick my neck out for nobody."

Later, in the sixties, when I was over thirty, it was said that people my age couldn't be trusted; It wasn't true, though. We could be trusted. We just couldn't be relied upon. Our cultural heroes didn't man the barricades. They hit the road. Our goal wasn't to overthrow the establishment, someone would say later, but to make it irrelevant. Or, like Miles Davis in concert, to play with your back to it. Some of us made Bogart an anti-hero in part, I think, because we already suspected that America was our own Casablanca, a place of seductive illusions and baroque deceptions, where nothing was as it appeared. Bogart, with skill and cool, knew how to adapt to the chaos and deceit without betraying his own code. It was a model we needed.
We had been taught that if we crawled under our desks, we would be safe from The Bomb. Even our teachers lied to us. Yet it never occurred to us to try to change the world. When change finally did come, we would do what we did best. We adapted. From conventional sex to free sex to frightened sex, we adapted. From mass movements to monomaniacal interest groups, we adapted. From integration to nationalism to political correctness, we adapted. From communes to condos, we adapted. From Beatles to rap, from bongos to cell phones, and from Aquarius to apocalypse, we adapted. And given that these weren't even our revolutions, we did it pretty well.

The one revolution that was truly ours, the civil rights movement, the boomer braggarts would claim for themselves. And, being the silent generation, we let them. Our virtue and our failing was that we would never enjoy the hubris of those older and younger than ourselves. Our virtue because we were modest enough to actually have learned something from what happened; our failing because the footing never seemed solid enough to permit us to do much with what we had learned.
They called my generation the "silent" one, the one America skipped in moving from George Bush to Bill Clinton. Maybe some of us were quiet because we were trying to figure out how to avoid becoming the man in the gray flannel suit or part of the lonely crowd. The struggle, we thought, was about individuality and no one spoke of movements. Our cultural heroes didn't organize anything. They hit the road. Our goal wasn't to overthrow the establishment, someone would say a decade later, but to make it irrelevant. When we were in our 30s, we were told that we already were too old to be trusted. It wasn't really true; in many ways the 60s was just the mass movement of something that had started in the 50s with our coffee houses, music and conscious political apathy. We were the warmup band for the 1960s.

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