The affluent but alienated 1950sThe 1950s saw the delayed impact of modernization and technology in everyday life, left over from the 1920s -- before the Great Depression. World War II brought the United States out of the Depression, and the 1950s provided most Americans with time to enjoy long-awaited material prosperity. Business, especially in the corporate world, seemed to offer the good life (usually in the suburbs), with its real and symbolic marks of success -- house, car, television, and home appliances.
Yet loneliness at the top was a dominant theme; the faceless corporate man became a cultural stereotype in Sloan Wilson's best-selling novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955). Generalized American alienation came under the scrutiny of sociologist David Riesman in The Lonely Crowd (1950). Other popular, more or less scientific studies followed, ranging from Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders (1957) and The Status Seekers (1959) to William Whyte's The Organization Man (1956) and C. Wright Mills's more intellectual formulations -- White Collar (1951) and The Power Elite (1956). Economist and academician John Kenneth Galbraith contributed The Affluent Society (1958). Most of these works supported the 1950s' assumption that all Americans shared a common lifestyle. The studies spoke in general terms, criticizing citizens for losing frontier individualism and becoming too conformist (for example, Riesman and Mills), or advising people to become members of the "New Class" that technology and leisure time created (as seen in Galbraith's works).
The 1950s actually was a decade of subtle and pervasive stress. Novels by John O'Hara, John Cheever, and John Updike explore the stress lurking in the shadows of seeming satisfaction. Some of the best work portrays men who fail in the struggle to succeed, as in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman and Saul Bellow's novella Seize the Day (1956). Some writers went further by following those who dropped out, as did J.D. Salinger in The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man (1952), and Jack Kerouac in On the Road (1957). And in the waning days of the decade, Philip Roth arrived with a series of short stories reflecting his own alienation from his Jewish heritage (Goodbye, Columbus, 1959). His psychological ruminations have provided fodder for fiction, and later autobiography, into the 1990s.
The fiction of American Jewish writers Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Isaac Bashevis Singer -- among others prominent in the 1950s and the years following -- are also worthy, compelling additions to the compendium of American literature. The output of these three authors is most noted for its humor, ethical concern, and portraits of Jewish communities in the Old and New Worlds.