Introduction and Contexts

The U.S. in the Late 1950s

DETAIL: GENERAL ELECTRIC AD For most of the country, the two academic years containing Faulkner’s terms as Writer-in-Residence (1956-1957 and 1957-1958) were relatively quiet, especially after the crises of the previous decades: the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the onset of the global “war” against Communism that was both “hot” (on the Korean peninsula) and “cold” (in the various diplomatic, economic, strategic and propagandistic struggles against Soviet Russia). In the late nineteen-fifties the U.S. economy continued to grow at record rates, moving more people into the middle class and out to the suburbs. The growing families created by the Baby Boom were learning new routines from the recently purchased black-and-white TV sets in their living rooms. The re-election of President Eisenhower created little suspense and no controversy. Just about the same time that UVA students returned to Charlottesville for the start of the Fall 1956 semester, however, three events occurred that would still be reverberating in the national consciousness and on the front pages of the student newspaper when Faulkner took up his residency the following February: the Suez Crisis, the Hungarian Revolution and, much closer to home, the conflict over integrating America’s public schools – which was also, in different parts of the South, both “hot” and “cold.”

GETTY IMAGES NEWS PHOTO The Suez Crisis began in the summer of 1956, when Egypt’s President, Gamal Adbul Nasser, nationalized the Canal. In an effort to regain control of it, Britain and France secretly planned with Israel for the new Jewish state to invade Egypt, allowing the two European countries to intervene militarily to take possession of the Canal in the guise of securing it for world commerce. Beginning with the Israeli attack in October, 1956, this crisis became the most frequently covered international news story in Virginia’s student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, perhaps because (although the U.S. was not directly involved except through diplomatic efforts to end the hostilities) fighting in the Middle East made UVA students very conscious of the draft cards they carried in their wallets. Publically, at least, in the American media the crisis was not viewed as a conflict between the Arab world and the West, but as another theater in the Cold War: behind Nasser’s actions the U.S. feared the specter of Soviet influence. The oil that flowed from wells in the Middle East in tankers through the Canal into the big cars Americans drove could not be allowed to fall under Russian control. The result of that anxiety was the Eisenhower Doctrine, announced in January, 1957, in which the U.S. pledged to support, militarily if necessary, any threatened country that requested its aid. A year later, Marines were sent to Lebanon as a result.

MICHAEL ROUGIER NEWS PHOTO The revolution in Hungary was short-lived, lasting for about three weeks in October and November 1956. At the end of the 1940s, Russian-backed nationals – supported by the presence of the Red Army that had liberated the country from the Nazis during World War II – turned Hungary into a Communist state. The 1956 Revolution began with a student demonstration in Budapest demanding more freedom for themselves and autonomy for their country. Within about ten days, the rebellion had spread throughout the populace: the Communist government was toppled, and at the end of October, as its leaders fled to Russia and the Soviet garrisons withdrew, it seemed as if a new Hungary would emerge. On 4 November, however, an overwhelming force of Russian tanks invaded the country. Over 2500 Hungarians were killed in the fighting that followed, thousands were arrested, the new government was deposed and the Hungarian Revolutionary Worker-Peasant Government set up in its place. Western Europe, the U.S. and the United Nations all condemned the Soviet “intervention.” In January 1957 Time Magazine named “The Hungarian Freedom Fighter” its “Man of the Year.” But the international response to this event was confined largely to sympathy for the Hungarians and indignation against the Soviets. At UVA students found various ways to express both those emotions, including a campaign for aid to relieve suffering in Hungary, but in the West the larger effect of the images of Russian tanks subduing a populace seemed to be an escalation in anxieties about the Communists’ designs on world domination. Senator Joe McCarthy’s incendiary exploitation of that threat had effectively ended by 1955. He died during Faulkner’s first term, prompting a favorable editorial in The Cavalier Daily and a question for Faulkner about “McCarthyism” Play Clip . “Hungary” is not specifically mentioned in any of the fourteen hundred questions on the tapes, but much of the discussion of current events in his UVA sessions is clearly informed by Cold War anxieties.

7 OCTOBER 1957 LIFE COVER Although it expressed very little support for the African Americans who were using non-violent tactics to fight for freedom in this country, The Cavalier Daily did report extensively on efforts to enroll black students in previously segregated southern schools, and on the forms of resistance to this revolution that emerged. The Civil Rights Movement was in its early stages in 1956-1958. The Montgomery Bus Boycott that began late in 1955 ended a year later, when the Supreme Court affirmed that Alabama’s Jim Crow public transportation system was unconstitutional. By 1956 the Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v Board of Education was getting its first practical tests outside as well as inside American schools, as angry whites gathered to prevent the court-ordered integration of previously segregated school systems. The beginning of the school year was a particularly eventful period in both 1956 and 1957. In 1956 there was violence (including a bombing) by white protestors in Clinton, Tennessee, and in September, 1957, Eisenhower sent U.S. troops into Little Rock, Arkansas, to protect black schoolchildren from violent mobs – Faulkner mentions both sites when addressing Virginians on this issue in February, 1958. For white Americans in the North, those new television sets brought home with unprecedented vividness the discrimination and injustice that black Americans in the South were subjected to. For many Americans this issue also had important implications for the Cold War: how could the U.S. compete against Soviet propaganda for the hearts and minds of people in the Third World when pictures of hateful mobs and uniformed sheriffs intimidating and beating peaceful black protestors and their children gave the lie to claims about “freedom” and “democracy”? For the white South, at least publically, such abstract considerations were meaningless compared to the visceral sense of being under attack by “outlanders” (as Faulkner liked to call northerners Play Clip ); to these people, those paratroopers in Little Rock (the first time that federal troops had been deployed in the South since the end of Reconstruction) probably looked like the Soviet tanks rolling into the streets of Budapest. Determined to defend the racial status quo, during the second of Faulkner’s terms here the Commonwealth of Virginia formally embraced the policy of “Massive Resistance,” under which public schools were simply closed down rather than allow black students into previously “white” classrooms. In Faulkner’s UVA audiences one can hear both considerable defensiveness about the racial traditions – which is to say, the racist system – they had grown up with, and uncertainty about what the current turmoil might lead to.

SPUTNIK SATELLITE As far as I can tell, there were neither Russian Communists nor American blacks in any of those audiences, but both were often present in the minds of the people who were there. If anything, tension about these issues grew over the two years recorded on the tapes. At the start of his second term, Faulkner himself chose to make the struggle against segregation the topic of one of the two formal speeches he gave here. The other, “A Word to Young Writer’s,” given in April 1958, begins by talking about the People-to-People program that Faulkner had participated in at Eisenhower’s request, thus locating the American writer in relation to the battle lines of the Cold War. When he was asked about specific ways to “combat communism,” he put his faith in individualism Play Clip , though he also considered sponsoring a literary prize for “the best manuscript to be smuggled out of the iron curtain countries.” Not long after the 1957-1958 academic year began, the Russians launched Sputnik, the first man-made object to orbit the earth. As the 180-pound satellite passed through the skies over America, millions of people watched and could not help thinking about those Soviet tanks in Hungary. The Cavalier Daily closely covered the story of Sputnik, as well as the failures and successes of the fledgling American space program. Space immediately became the new theater of Cold War operations. NASA, for example, was created in 1958. Fears about potential Soviet superiority in science and technology had direct consequences for higher education in this country, when the National Defense Education Act was passed at the start of the 1958-1959 school year to provide colleges and universities with resources for training American experts to compete with Russia’s.

ELVIS PRESLEY LIVE, 1956 To the student of pop culture, however, 1957 was also the year in which the Wham-O toy company launched its most successful product: the Pluto Platter, which soon became known as the frisbee. There’s no sign of this flying object in the CD, but according to John A. Church, Class of 1959, “the nationwide Frisbee craze struck” UVA hard. * . Another cultural phenomenon that is surprisingly invisible in the student newspaper, and not brought up in Faulkner’s sessions, is the emergence on the national stage of Mississipian Elvis Presley, whose appearances on television in the Fall 1956 galvanized the country. Perhaps because UVA was so attached to the idea of tradition, or perhaps because Faulkner’s novels say so much more about the southern past and the early Twentieth century than about the immediate world of the late Fifties, the cultural issues that, for many historians, were symptomatically finding expression in Elvis’ body language and the eruption of rock-n-roll are seldom audible on the tapes. At least, I can’t hear any signs of a generation gap on them. Adults – or at least voices that sound as if they belong to adults – ask a surprisingly large number of the questions; when the questioners sound like students, they almost invariably seem to ask the same kind of questions that their teachers do. But the times were a-changing. Faulkner usually declines to talk at all about “contemporary literature,” but does say he has read J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951), and shares with his listeners a sympathy for Holden Caulfield’s alienation from the times. And on two different occasions the “San Francisco renaissance” is briefly discussed. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl came out in 1956, and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in 1957; Kerouac is mentioned by name, and the term “San Francisco poets” clearly has meaning to a Charlottesville audience, though it sounds as if those people are uncertain about what anyone should make of this new direction in American literature. Compared to the Beats’ public readings, Faulkner’s are very decorous; as you listen to them, it’s not hard to see the jackets and ties on the men, young and old, in his audiences.

Images of current events from The Cavalier Daily

Articles about current events from The Cavalier Daily