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 VOL. 23, NO. 23MAY 20, 1998 

Faculty Profile: Ann Douglas

A Daughter of the 1950s Examines Cold War Culture

Record Photo by Joe Pineiro.


Ann Douglas, the formidable analyst of American culture, is working on the book she knew for decades she would write—a study of the impact of the Cold War on American culture of the 1940s and 1950s, the years of her own childhood. At its core are the dozen or so cultural icons of mid-20th century America whom Douglas describes adoringly as “my group”—Jack Kerouac, James Baldwin, Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich and Charlie Parker, among others.

  She speaks intently of their passions and creativity, and intermixes her appraisal with recollections from her early years—persuading her parents when she was 11 years old to let her see a particularly steamy Hayworth movie and the thrill she felt as a Harvard undergraduate when she heard Rich read her poetry for the first time. For Douglas, the era represents her own coming of age. Though as a young woman she embraced the freedom of the 1960s, it was the 1950s, she feels, that had already formed her.

  “You are drawn to people who will allow you, if you tell their story honestly and objectively, to express something of yourself at the same time. This is my own era. The one closest to my own needs and preoccupations,” says Douglas, 56, who is the author of two influential books about American culture.

  The explosion of creativity in music, film, painting, theater and literature in post World War II America, much of it centered in New York City, is Douglas’ theme in her third book, whose working title is If You Live You Burn: Cold War Culture in the United States: 1939-1965. Still years from completion, it will chronicle how American culture evolved as the United States became a world superpower locked in competition with the Soviet Union. The title is taken from a poem by Andrei Voznesenky, whose work was first published in the Soviet Union in 1958: “Life is a series of burnt out sites./Nobody escapes the bonfire./If you live, you burn.”

  Douglas, the Parr Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, explored the relationship between the Cold War and artistic movements of the period during the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Distinguished Lecture at the University Club last month and during a recent interview in her book-crammed apartment near campus.

  She said the Cold War changed America’s concept of knowledge itself. “For the first time there was a wide discrepancy between what the government knew and what ordinary people knew,” she said. “And more than that, you had a new idea of information—that it had national boundaries. There was nothing quite like it before. With the development of nuclear weapons we said that certain people or institutions or nations could have certain knowledge because of wealth or manpower and others could not.”

  According to Douglas, the important artistic movements of the 40s and 50s—film noir, the Actors’ Studio, Abstract Expressionism, “snapshot” photography, “confessional” poetry, the Beat movement, Bop, rhythm and blues, and black protest fiction—sprang from a desire to counteract government secrecy and duplicity and the control of knowledge during the Cold War years.

   “Most people have something like a ‘truth instinct,’ a motive force, a steering and self-defining device that goes far deeper than conscience or convention,” she said. “It’s the hope of establishing an accurate and meaningful narrative, an authentic form, for the self and the world it inhabits. Increased violations of this truth instinct, whether by individual behavior or national policy, are felt.”

  “If one remembers that the U.S. government stepped up its surveillance of its citizens to unprecedented levels in the 1940s and early 1950s; that for the first time, it compiled psychological dossiers on everyone inducted into its military forces, sometimes sharing the information with the ever more encroaching FBI; that federal housing agencies were making maps of every neighborhood in the United States, ranking each according to its racial/ethnic homogeneity, social stability, and earning potential, and granting federal funds accordingly; that the nation was tightening its drug laws and defining a host of beliefs and activities, most notably communism and homosexuality, as criminal, even treasonable—with all this in mind, my view of the influence government policy played in private lives in this era is plausible,” she said.

  She said artists of the period were driven to expose the corrupting force of government secrecy. “Where the administration insisted on the ‘objective’ and rational nature of its information and activities, the artists explored the ‘subjective’ status of knowledge,” she said. The culture of the period, she suggests, began to mirror the military situation of the Cold War. “You have to be ready for annihilation at every moment so that you can avoid annihilation. You have to be on the brink so you won’t fall off. Mainly you do nothing but look into the abyss.”

‘There’s always a big picture, whether you want to address it or not. It’s dangerous not to address it.’

  The ‘truth instinct’ produced art in new forms. Film noir, for example, is devoted to the meaning of secrets and corruption, Douglas said. “It isn’t film noir if there isn’t some sort of legal or corporate entity whose corruption is part of the plot,” she said. “It’s got deceit. It’s got murder. The powerful people in some way turn out to be the enemy.”

  The legacy of government secrecy, Douglas suggests, helps to explain our continuing fascination with conspiracy theories about the deaths of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King. “People know for sure that there are a hell of a lot of things they weren’t told,” says Douglas. “People begin to think in ways that depend on the fact that they know that information is being withheld from them.”

  Different artists reacted differently. She suggests that abstract painters like Jackson Pollack may have chosen obscure forms at a time when the government began to keep dossiers on artists and writers. For the confessional poets, Beat writers and black rhythm and blues musicians, there was an overarching need to bare the soul. “Why this urge to confess, this new frankness about sexuality, except in part to protest against a time when people were being forced to confess in front of government bodies and when sexuality was being criminalized?” she asks. “In an age that invents classified information, you invent a kind of art that explores emotional depths that aren’t open to censorship.”

  The need to scrutinize one’s motives expressed itself through popular taste. The novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, she notes, were at the peak of their popularity in the United States during the first two decades of the Cold War. “I’ve come to see this vogue for ideas of sin and self-searching not only as a means of self-justification—since we’re all prey to evil impulses, who can fault me?—but also as a symptom of a final reluctance among Americans at this time either fully to undertake the task of self-knowledge or to abandon it once and for all.”

  The culture of the 40s and 50s has been a staple of Douglas’ course offerings at Columbia for 20 years, and while it is accepted wisdom that the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Douglas feels this is an ambiguous demarcation line, at best. Many of the Cold War political markers, she suggests, remain in place.

  “The Cold War isn’t really over because most of what we continue to do politically only makes sense in terms of the Cold War not being over,” she says. “Domestically, the Cold War was waged against leftists of all kinds. Today, they have more enemies than ever. We still rely on the defense industry to supply the backbone of the economy. We still have the C.I.A. and the National Security Council and a defense budget hundreds of times greater than the education budget. That is how we have spent much of the 20th century and that has not changed,” she says. She sees history as a stream that changes only as new tributaries change its course. “For the Cold War, we don’t have those tributaries yet.”

  Douglas has been working her way toward a book about American culture and the Cold War since she received her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1970. An Americanist who also trained as a Medievalist, she became a major intellectual presence with the publication in 1977 of The Feminization of American Culture in which she argued that the Victorian era produced the first products of modern mass culture—romance novels, ladies magazines and other sentimentalized fare to meet the needs of an age when respectable culture was dominated by white middle class matriarchs and their ministers. She spent the next 15 years writing a sequel, the highly acclaimed Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920’s (1995). In 606 pages, Douglas produced an eye-opening account of the melding of black and white culture in New York City, showing how the leading writers, musicians and journalists of the day dismissed the sentimentality of the past and embraced truth-telling in a way that led directly to the “mongrel” popular culture we know today.

  “I always knew I would someday work my way up to the present period and some version of my own times,” she says. She began, as she did in her last book, with a cast of characters. Whether Dorothy Parker (“the most clever woman in the world”) during the 1920s or Jack Kerouac (“He was just there from the beginning for me”) during the 1950s, Douglas is drawn to individual lives as a way to describe important cultural shifts. “For me, it is the people,” she says. “I always start out with a group of people that I’m basically in love with. And I want to know everything about them. The great thing is when you’re working in the 20th century, there’s so much there—video, film, photographs. The people I’m dealing with now, everyday it seems something new is out. That’s the best part. It’s as though the whole world has turned into a research outfit for me. I feel as though I need only wait here and the whole thing will come to me. It’s almost more exciting than I can bear.”

  It is not surprising that Douglas describes the four years she has already spent researching her Cold War book as a “honeymoon” with her soulmates from the 40s and 50s. “Everyone is on their best behavior. You’re so engaged with all these people. It’s all new and fresh and vital. You haven’t begun the hard work of the marriage yet. When you’re writing you get into the marriage.” She hopes to have a first draft completed before her 60th birthday.

  Douglas works as she has for 25 years—taking notes in longhand on legal pads, retyping her notes and rewriting them in the process, all on a typewriter. She keeps file cards on her notes in dozens of file boxes stacked on bookcases around her apartment. “It is very much against the computer age, I realize,” she says. Although she now has email, she has resisted writing on the computer. “I don’t think I could ever go over. At 40, yes. At 56, no.”

  She has periodically read the Internet, particularly online magazines, although she has Slate sent to her by regular mail. She compares the Internet to the change in journalistic style that occurred during the 1920s. “What Time magazine was to the world of journalism when it was introduced in 1923, Slate is to today’s journalism. Before Time, journalism was much more verbose, more staid. It changed after that. There’s a new tone online today. It’s much less synthetic. Less pulled together. It’s more dialoging. And books will be like this, too.”

  Does this mean her own type of book may become extinct?

  “Well, few people are writing books like I write anymore—these big, synthetic works. Precisely because we now value the kind of information that’s most easily useable, gathered, more specific, and adhoc. Maybe I won’t even want to write a book like this again. But I’m not sure. It’s easy to overprivilege your own chosen forms, yet I think something important will be lost if no one tries to look at the big picture. There’s always a big picture, whether you want to address it or not. It’s dangerous not to address it.”