Millennials tend to regard Mad Men as a documentary of the 1950s—three-martini lunches, rampant sexism followed by rampant sex, and political and cultural repression, from the beltway to Elm Street. Of political repression, there is no doubt. Senator Joe McCarthy’s reckless charges of Communist subversion, loyalty oaths, and the Hollywood blacklist—all testify to the decade’s big chill. But cultural repression? In fact, the 1950s were among the most intellectually and creatively provocative periods of the twentieth century.
In that decade, Alan Ginsberg’s influential poem “Howl” appeared, alongside Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical On the Road and Ralph Ellison’s seminal Invisible Man. Short story writers had a flourishing marketplace in which to exhibit their wares, including Collier’s, Esquire, The New Yorker, The Saturday Evening Post, Redbook, and Playboy. Cartoonists worked the same bazaar, and their drawings showed a comprehension of draftsmanship, social perception and—hard as it is to believe today— wit.
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