Monday, May 5, 2014

Peter Bacon Hales's "Outside the Gates of Eden"

Peter Bacon Hales is professor emeritus of the history of art and architecture and director emeritus of the American Studies Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the author of several books, including Atomic Spaces: Living on the Manhattan Project.

Hales applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Outside the Gates of Eden: The Dream of America from Hiroshima to Now, and reported the following:
Outside the Gates of Eden: The Dream of America from Hiroshima to Now traces the transformation of America from the beginning of the atomic age to the establishment of the virtual age. It is a history in which politics takes its rightful place in the uneasy background of everyday life, while ordinary people, activities and spaces dominate. I chose a series of charged objects, places and events, in roughly chronological order: test cases drawn from each of the mass media that emerged, dominated, and then faded as new technologies of information and entertainment overtook them—newsreels, movies, picture magazines, television, pop music, video games. I looked closely at each example—from Miracle on 34th Street to The Sims, then panned back to suggest their larger significance.

Two major themes emerged. The first concerns contesting images of atomic America—one darkly anxious and obsessed with powerlessness and fear, the other optimistic, even utopian, an America always about to be a rediscovered Eden. Over time, I’ve come to see these two as intertwined, often managed and manipulated by the dominating institutions, political and economic. The second theme concerns the ways Americans came to see themselves as actors on a global stage, eager or unwilling models of stability, independence, community and happiness, and justifying America’s place as the great moral superpower it hoped to be.

Both themes are embedded in the passage on page 99, which occurs in the middle of a close look at the layout of the Levittown model home and the significance of changes the builders made to the stock Cape Cod bungalow that had granted them fame and wealth. In 1949 and 1950, the Levitts abruptly abandoned their Colonial-style home for a version of a California ranch house, complete with modernistic two-sided fireplace, a carport, a floor-to-ceiling picture window, and a built-in television tucked into a living room wall. These changes reflected the Levitts’ decision to move from an avowedly traditional design, built into a tight-knit community, to an outward-looking, optimistic alternative, offering more freedom and independence, inside and out.
The final innovation moved this side of the equation further: it was the shift of living room from front, where visitors entering the house were immediately welcomed, to the back, where a long, wall-sized picture window and a doorway out to the back patio opened the living room to outdoors and, more importantly, to the intimate, informal, neighborly, communitarian space of the open backyards, the common area, rather than the sidewalk and street, the formal and efficient areas where the car was parked to take you to work and where the school bus came. Now rather than watching the kids from the kitchen, you watched them from the living room—from the space of leisure rather than labor.
Ah, but if only it had been page 98! For the book is full of wonderful images; on that page, you see Life magazine’s novel way of treating the changes in the Levitt house: they found a family that had traded up to each succeeding model, and posed them in front of each of their Levittown houses.
Learn more about Outside the Gates of Eden at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue