The Death of Muscular American Social Life

All my life, I have encountered people who scoff at the notion that the American family was far healthier in the 1950s than it is now. They cannot, of course, point to any strong evidence of widespread unhappiness and dysfunction in that time. Divorces were rare, and so were out-of-wedlock births. American men and women after the war were eager to resume real life. Rosie the Riveter usually wanted children and a home, not a new sweatband and more rivets.

We don’t have to assert that it was a “golden age,” any more than we have to assert that all of the founders were geniuses of political acumen and farsightedness. All we need to assert is that in certain important respects, there are good reasons to say that family life was richer than it is now, in part because people assumed that the common good both depended upon family life and was meant to foster that life. 

Scoffers usually bring up one or more of the old family-oriented television comedies from that time, to say that they were absurdly untrue to life, especially as they put the father upon a pedestal, beaming wisely and graciously down upon the little people, that is, his wife and children: “Father Knows Best,” “Leave It to Beaver,” “Ozzie and Harriet. I wonder whether such people have watched more than an episode or two of each show, if they have watched any episodes at all. The fathers in those shows were wise, but they also made a lot of mistakes, so that the very title “Father Knows Best” was clearly a stroke of gentle but obvious irony: Jim Anderson did not always know best, and many a time he had to give up his pride or his stubbornness, and see things as his loved ones saw them, and sometimes grow in self-knowledge. 

The same was true of Ward Cleaver in “Leave It to Beaver. He is a bit quick to grow angry, a bit quick to assume that his sons are in the wrong, and when he is mistaken, he must swallow his pride and show them by quiet example that the manly thing is to be a real father, not a swaggerer or a tyrant. The writers of “Leave It to Beaver” took a direction that the writers in the other two shows did not take. They seem to have been aware of dark clouds on the horizon of family life, specifically as regards the father. 

A running motif in the show, almost always left implicit, a matter of suggestion rather than shouting, is that the friends of the two Cleaver boys do not have good fathers. Larry’s father is never seen at all, and is usually out of town, so that Mrs. Mondello is often at her wits’ end—an end, in her case, that is not far to reach—in dealing with her young son, who does not have a bad nature, but who is often disobedient. Lumpy’s father boasts about his son in the most overblown ways, and when Lumpy fails to live up to the boasting, his father lapses into sharp criticism, so that the boy is spoiled and browbeaten at once. Eddie’s father seems to pay no attention to him at all, but simply to assume that the boy is of no account. Eddie, who for all his swagger is a lonely fellow, usually lives down to his father’s expectations.

Hugh Beaumont, the actor who played Ward Cleaver, was a Methodist clergyman, and I think he was sensitive to the moral troubles in the air. The show can be blamed—unfairly, I think—for its sometimes serious moral tone; but I find the sentimentalism of political correctness to be far more of a bludgeon to the head than the moralism of “Leave It to Beaver.” For the Cleaver moral wisdom partook of axioms that everyone has always believed, everywhere, while political correctness is the monster of this age, grotesque and absurd by turns. 

Yet for all that, “Leave It to Beaver” is a genuinely funny show, with a lot of clever dialogue, gentle human embarrassment, and a genial liking for that strange and unpredictable creature called the boy. Sneering had not yet become a national pastime—and the sneer is the death-rattle of comedy.

Then we have “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Bill Cosby used to make fun of the show, saying that half of the episodes were about going to the corner drug store to get ice cream. I think Cosby was the single greatest stand-up comedian that America ever produced, and the comic records he cut in the 1960s are for the ages. But he, and not Ozzie Nelson, took himself seriously as a moralist, and his work tended in the 1970s and the 1980s toward preachiness even as his private life descended into the sewer. Whether “Ozzie and Harriett” lacked the wonder of married love that Robert Young and Jane Wyatt portrayed in “Father Knows Best, or the quirky boyish humor of “Leave It to Beaver,” I yield to my readers to judge.

As with “Father Knows Best, the title of “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” is intended ironically. The “adventures” are the foibles of human beings who get themselves tangled up in embarrassments. Most of the time, the foible is Ozzie’s, as he is the eternal boy, willing to play the buffoon in order to make his best girl laugh. 

One odd thing about the show is that the members of the family, Ozzie, Harriet, and their sons David and Ricky, play themselves; that is, Ozzie Nelson plays “Ozzie Nelson,” and so forth. Thus they draw on their own family experiences, or what they can imagine those experiences to be, and about six years into the show’s long run, David is in college and Ricky is becoming the rock and roll singer that he, in fact, was. And it, too, is a genuinely funny show; Jay Sommers was one of the writers, and from him we would get the zany and lovably surreal Hooterville and its mad denizens, in “Green Acres.

What I find most striking about “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” is not what it has to say, deliberately, but what it says without being aware of it. The show bespeaks a vibrant and varied social life. People are outdoors all the time. The teenage boys are always going out on dates, because there is always a dance somewhere. Ozzie goes bowling with his buddies on Tuesday nights. He and Harriet welcome three other couples to their house to play cards, and this, too, is a regular thing. It is assumed that men wear coats and ties when they go to a dance or a dinner, and women wear dresses. If you think that is absurd, I ask you to find the video of game one of the 1968 World Series, played on October 2, in Saint Louis, in sweltering heat. The crowd is full of men in white shirts, some of them wearing ties, and women wearing dresses. There is a certain festivity in wanting to look good in well-tailored clothes, among others who will be festive in the same way. We have merriment without its impostor and destroyer, the raunchy.

People in “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” do things together. They play musical instruments, and everywhere you turn, there is a local band. You not only permit your children to call upon other people’s houses. You expect it. The level of social trust is very high, because it can be. Solid—by no means perfect or angelic—family life makes it so. Everyone knows his neighbors, not just by name but by habit; even by the typical smells of dinners in the air.

Those who can testify to this muscular social life are dying. We will, I fear, be left with the worst of all worlds: moralism without morality, socialism without sociality, children without childhood, and humor without humor.

About Anthony Esolen

Anthony Esolen is a Distinguished Fellow of the Center for American Greatness and a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a senior editor for Touchstone Magazine and a contributing editor for Chronicles. He is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan Books, 2016); Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017); Nostalgia (Regnery, 2018); and Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius, 2020).

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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