Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Jim Cullen's "From Memory to History"

Jim Cullen is the author of numerous books, including The American Dream and Those Were the Days: Why All in the Family Still Matters. He has taught at Harvard, Brown, and Sarah Lawrence College, and is a member of the faculty of the newly established Greenwich Country Day High School in Greenwich, Connecticut.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, From Memory to History: Television Versions of the Twentieth Century, and reported the following:
I think the Page 99 test captures the spirit of my book very well, if from a somewhat different angle than typical for the project as a whole. From Memory to History explores -- as many of my books do -- how history resonates in popular culture, not only in what is presumably depicted, but in the way history is itself an artifact of the moment of its creation. So it is, for example, that I discuss the television series Mad Men as an early 21st-century version of the 1960s--one which, for example, foregrounds issues of gender that implicitly comment on events from the perspective of a half-century later. In this passage, however, my analysis looks back rather than forward, connecting Mad Men protagonist Don Draper to one of the most famous characters in American literature:
In many respects, Draper’s character is reminiscent of an earlier incarnation of the American Dream: Jay Gatsby. Like Gatsby, Draper is a charismatic man with a secret past. That past includes military service in a dubious war (the First World War for Gatsby; the Korean War for Draper), the details of which are murky. Both lived much of their youth among seedy characters that respectable people tend to avoid, yet both had mentors (Dan Cody, Roger Sterling) whose lessons they learned—and successes they surpassed. Both attain riches scarcely imaginable in their youth, and both engender curiosity on the part of strangers as well as those who know them—or think they do. They elicit admiration and resentment from the elite into whose ranks they have managed to enter, where there is room for them in an economically dynamic society marked by explosive economic growth. Both are workaholics for whom business is constantly intruding into their private lives.

There are differences, too. Draper is a family man—his wife, Betty (January Jones) is a Daisy figure of the kind Gatsby cannot attain—and he’s the father of three children. Don is a scrupulous businessman and a disgraceful adulterer, while Gatsby is a racketeer whose devotion to Daisy is unshakeable. And while, like Gatsby, a fatalistic air hovers over Draper for the length of the series, their secrets always on the cusp of revelation and self-destruction, Draper’s fate is neither as decisive or spectacular of that of Gatsby, whose ambivalent admirer, Nick Carraway, finally decides is great. And yet Nick could be speaking for Draper no less than Gatsby when he famously says, “If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.”

One key difference is that Gatsby isn’t really that bright (“Can’t repeat the past? Of course you can!”), which is why he needs an interlocutor who can frame his behavior and endow it with a dignity he could not confer on himself. Don Draper needs no such mediation. We see him vividly, if never quite transparently, through a small screen, where he—and the imperial republic for which he stands—loom larger than life.
Visit Jim Cullen's website.

The Page 99 Test: Sensing the Past.

--Marshal Zeringue