Mad Men is about to disappear from our lives once again, leaving us to grapple alone with our complicated nostalgia for an era when men were men, women were secretaries, and alcoholism was glamorous. These books give a closer look at the era, offering a vision of Midcentury Manhattan that goes beyond Cheever and Yates. (Although Cheever and Yates are a great place to start, if you haven’t already.) Read them to tide you over until the next season or to fine-tune your predictions for this week’s series finale:
1. Reborn: Journals & Notebooks 1947-1963, by David Rieff and Susan Sontag
If Sontag were alive today, it’s unlikely she would find much to admire about Mad Men, and yet she and Don Draper have a lot in common. Ambitious and seductive, both came to Manhattan to make themselves anew, rejecting their provincial roots. Among the many revelatory moments in Sontag’s diaries, the nakedness of her self-creation is the most startling; there are Gatsby-like resolutions for self-improvement, reading lists, and meticulous records of films, plays, and parties attended. Like Don Draper, she loved to use high-flown language to talk about popular culture, and was happiest when pulling nicotine-fueled all-nighters. She and Don also share a dread of monogamy, while at the same time rushing into ill-advised romances. Here’s Sontag on her early marriage to Philip Rieff: “I marry Philip with full consciousness + fear of my will toward self-destructiveness.”
2. Manhattan, When I Was Young, by Mary Cantwell
This sweet, searching memoir about a young woman’s coming of age in Manhattan in the 1950s and early 60s is full of Mad Men-esque images, and narrated with the same rueful, if-we-only-knew-then-what-we-know-now tone. A former magazine writer for Mademoiselle and Vogue, Cantwell’s memory is pleasingly specific as she recalls fashions of the day and the best place to get a sundae in Midtown. The book is also a record of her first marriage to a young, aspiring novelist whose bohemian tastes infected her own. Disdainful of suburban living, Cantwell and her husband chose the West Village instead, where they moved from charming apartment to charming apartment with an ease that seems like utter fantasy today.
3. The New York Times Cookbook, by Craig Claiborne
Page through this and you’ll have a pretty good idea of the meals that Pete Campbell’s wife, Trudy, has waiting for him when he comes home from work. First published in 1961, it was the book that a generation of young housewives learned to cook from before they graduated to Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
4. The Early Stories, 1953-1975, by John Updike
Although only a handful of the stories in this collection take place in Manhattan, Updike was born within just a few years of Don Draper, and his stories reflect the peculiar pathologies of their generation, “the Silent Generation.” Raised during the Great Depression, both men grew up in a time of scarcity only to come of age in an era of prosperity. Such extremes of experience were bewildering, creating feelings of both wonder and discontent. As Updike writes in his 2003 foreword to the collection, “We were simple and hopeful enough to launch into idealistic careers and early marriages, and pragmatic enough to adjust, with an American shrug, to the ebb of old certainties. Yet, though spared many of the material deprivations and religious terrors that had dogged our parents, and awash in a disproportionate share of the world’s resources, we continued prey to what Freud called ‘normal human unhappiness.’”
5. The Grand Surprise, The Journals of Leo Lerman, by Leo Lerman
Leo Lerman, a social butterfly whose name is likely included in any number of books of the period, is briefly mentioned in Manhattan, When I Was Young, in a passage describing the offices at Mademoiselle:
Leo Lerman, the entertainment editor, sat in a sort of railed-off den behind an enormous mahogany desk, taking phone calls from Marlene Dietrich and Truman Capote. A plump, bearded man, he lived in a house so excessively Victorian it defied the century, which was the point, and had a collection of friends so dazzling I am still dazzled by it.
Published posthumously in 2007, Lerman’s diary reveals the full extent of his “dazzling” collection of friends, which included Carson McCullers, Maria Callas, Jackie Onassis, and George Balanchine, among others. In the 1960s, he was installed as features editor of Vogue, and became one of the decade’s tastemakers, introducing readers to writers like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., August Wilson, and Iris Murdoch. Although Lerman’s version of Manhattan, with its focus on the literary, fashion, and theater worlds, is quite different from the one portrayed on Mad Men, his diaries share the same interest in gesture and language, especially the indirect ways people communicate with another. Attempting to find meaning in his diaries, Lerman wrote: “Personality, that is what I want to pin down, no matter how fleetingly, for the personality of a man is component to personality of his era.”
6. Within The Context of No Context, by George W. S. Trow
Series creator Matthew Weiner has said that at its heart, Mad Men is about the massive cultural shifts that began in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the way someone like Don Draper, an archetype of an earlier era, learns to adapt. George Trow’s classic essay, Within the Context of No Context, first published in The New Yorker in 1980, is a retrospective analysis of those cultural shifts, as well as his own anguished response to them. The son of a newspaperman, Trow writes that he grew up expecting to “have a fedora hat of my own by the time I was twelve years old.” Instead, he came of age only to find that his father’s version adulthood could no longer be inherited: “Irony has seeped into the felt of any fedora hat I have ever owned…” Like our nostalgia for the world of Mad Men, Trow’s is undercut by his understanding that it was never very sustainable to begin with.
7. Talk Stories, by Jamaica Kincaid
After being told that Mademoiselle “would not hire black girls”, Jamaica Kincaid started her writing career at Ingenue magazine, whose offices were in the same building as National Lampoon’s. Recognizing Kincaid’s wit, a writer at National Lampoon introduced her to The New Yorker’s George Trow, who became her mentor. Kincaid’s first assignment for The New Yorker was to accompany Trow to Brooklyn’s West Indian Day parade. Trow transcribed Kincaid’s comments for a “Talk of the Town” column, introducing the world to her joyful, youthful, and subtly ironic point of view. After that, Kincaid wrote her own “Talk” pieces. Talk Stories collects Kincaid’s essays into one volume, covering nearly a decade of New York City life, from 1974-1983. Although the columns don’t — at least not yet — overlap with the time period portrayed in Mad Men, it’s fascinating to see how a young black woman from Antigua managed to subvert the staid “Talk” format, which was at the time an unsigned column written in the first person plural, and free of curse words, sex, gossip, and any subject that might be considered trendy. Despite these strictures — or maybe because of them — the spirit of the era shines through. Kincaid’s spirit also shines, and taken together, these essays form a portrait of a young woman striving to find her place in the world. A must read for anyone with a soft spot for Peggy Olsen.
8. Just Kids, by Patti Smith
Where Mad Men depicts life on Madison Avenue, with occasional glimpses into the life of New York’s bohemian culture, Smith’s memoir is a portrait of downtown New York with occasional glimpses of Fifth Avenue, where she worked for years as a bookseller at Scribner’s. Smith’s point of view is decidedly romantic as she recalls the years when she and Robert Mapplethorpe were broke nobodies, trying to decide whether to spend her paycheck on art supplies or diner meals. “We hadn’t any money but we were happy…I tacked pictures of Rimbaud, Bob Dylan, Lotte Lenya, Piaf, Genet, and John Lennon over a makeshift desk where I arranged my quills, my inkwell, and my notebooks — my monastic mess.” Reading Smith’s girlish memories, you’ll understand why Don sometimes gets a wistful look when talking to Megan.
9. Jack Holmes & His Friend, by Edmund White
Edmund White’s most recent novel, about the decades-long friendship between a gay man and a straight one, illustrates the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s from a new angle. Like Mad Men, Jack Holmes & His Friend begins in a world that is still dominated by the manners and mores of the 1950s. Jack, who is gay, must hide his sexuality from his straight friend, Will. But as the counter-culture takes hold, the tables turn and it’s Will who struggles with this sexuality, feeling trapped in his marriage while Jack blossoms, embracing a new identity as a “sexual libertine.” Covering a period of over thirty years, this novel includes many evocative descriptions of a Manhattan gone by, as well as a number of blow-out party scenes, resulting in debaucheries worthy of Don Draper.
10. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson
This work of narrative non-fiction is an investigation of the migration of African-Americans from the south to northern and western cities, a profound demographic shift that began after World War I and continued through the 1970s. Wilkerson ties her narrative to the lives of three individuals, who each leave the south to settle in three different cities: Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. The pathos of Wilkerson’s narrative comes as her subjects realize that escape from Jim Crow laws does not mean an escape from racism. This book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the roots of the civil rights movement — something that seems, to the characters of Mad Men, to come out of nowhere, but was actually a decades-long process, rooted in the day-to-day struggles of hundreds of thousands of migrant families. As Wilkerson writes of one of her subjects, Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, “Few experts trained their sights on the unseen masses of migrants like her, who worked from the moment they arrived, didn’t end up on welfare, stayed married because that’s what God-fearing people of their generation did whether they were happy or not, and managed not to get strung out on drugs or whiskey or a cast of nameless, no-count men.”
Prominent among my childhood memories is the voice of Julia Child. Or rather, the voice of my father imitating Julia Child. Ours was (you’ll be shocked to learn) a PBS household, and the pseudo-Julia arias he would deliver while making Chicken Dish – in that swooping, fluty, Childian soprano – were guaranteed to crack me up, as was his Maggie Thatcher. (Come to think of it, they were pretty much the same impression). And so this year, when the first posters for Julie & Julia began to appear, I thought I knew what I was in for: some laughs, some game-fowl, and Meryl Streep trilling, “Save the liver!”
What the movie and the attendant retrospectives of the real-life Julia Child suggest, however, is less a figure of fun than a figure of liberation. In a country that has never quite outgrown its Puritan pedigree, here was a woman fearless about all things sensual: food, sex, and her own big, lovely body. Seen in this light, Mastering the Art of French Cooking amounts to a kind of manifesto in defense of pleasure. I don’t own that particular book, but Julie & Julia sent me back to Child’s slightly less-famous opus, The Way to Cook, which had been sitting neglected on a shelf in my kitchen. And Julia Child turns out not only to have been a kind of unfussy feminist; she was also a terrific writer.
It’s not often we think of recipes as a form of literature, but they are as formally exacting as the Spenserian stanza (and, as anyone who’s ever ruined $40 worth of lamb knows, the stakes are higher). The Way to Cook is a model of clarity and pragmatism. Moreover, it offers a master class in rhetoric.
In my freshman comp classes, we talk about the three classic rhetorical appeals: logos, pathos, and ethos. Most any piece of rhetoric makes all three appeals simultaneously, but a good rhetor will emphasize one or the other. The first two are fairly easy to grasp; the pathetic appeal (a.k.a. the appeal to emotions) is the mode of contemporary advertising, and is thus ascendant in American discourse. (Death panels, anyone?) Other voices will attempt to correct for widespread abuse of pathos by focusing on the logical appeal (a.k.a. the appeal to reason). Thus, we get liberal pundits reasoning themselves blue in the face: But there are no death panels in these bills! Alas, in cooking, politics, and other inexact sciences, head does not always trump heart. To mediate between the claims of each, we must look to that mysterious creature: ethos.
As I understand it, the ethical appeal has to do with establishing the speaker’s credibility, or the attractiveness of her persona. One approach might be simply to flourish one’s expertise. But, in our postmodern age, the conspicuous display of expertise too easily gives rise to charges of elitism. (Charges which, because they are essentially pathetic, are impossible to rebut.) Contemporary masters of the ethical appeal – among them David Foster Wallace, Jane Jacobs, and my quondam dentist, Dr. Bob Cargill – use the vast resources of voice to make us want to trust them. And how do they do this? By trusting us. By respecting our intelligence. By making a point of showing all their cards and giving a fair assessment of the strength of the overall hand. And above all, by acknowledging that we have the freedom to disagree.
Notwithstanding that overweening title – The Way to Cook – the power of Julia Child’s ethical appeal is that rather than seeking to bully or lecture or intimidate or dazzle us (which, of course, she could) she writes as though we are working in the kitchen alongside her. She allows that there are different approaches to cooking; she frequently suggests that, in her experience, some complication is necessary and some is not. And she does all this with constant, gentle humor. Here is her introduction to game birds:
Since all birds roast in about the same manner, and simmer, sauté, and stew in almost the same way, you’ll find them grouped together that way here, for the most part. It makes more sense, it seems to me; then you have the theory and practice for each technique, whatever your bird happens to be. Actually, it would make even more sense to group the beasts along with the birds . . . but I have resisted carrying logic that far.
Compare to Martha Stewart, a fine writer and cook but an imperialist of logos if ever there was one. Here’s a classic example, first noted by Anthony Lane, of Martha’s single-minded, logical pursuit of the very best:
Locate an area in advance with tender, young, organically grown grass that has not yet been cut. . . . It is best to cut it very early in the morning while the dew is still evident.
It is evident that Martha has lost sight of her context – a recipe for baked ham – and thus of her audience. How much she presumes about us: our lives, our patience, our willingness to go along with her harebrained schemes! Her ham might taste just as good as, or even better than, Child’s, but the cook will feel too humbled, or even belittled, to enjoy it much.
I would suggest that the same principles of ethos that make The Way to Cook so effective – mastery lightly worn and a pronounced solicitude for the reader – might translate well to other fields. Even, perhaps, to literary criticism. A truly great critic has two jobs – to judge and to persuade – but some of our most polished logicians seem sometimes to forget the ethical appeal entirely. Aspirants to the throne of E.M. Forster and Leslie Fiedler could do worse than to study The Way to Cook. Julia Child’s voice on the page proves as indelible as her voice on the tube.
[Image credit: foodista]