Keeping up appearances: "Normality" in postwar United States culture, 1945–1963
“Normality” is an idea so deeply woven into U.S. culture that it seems always to have existed, yet this interdisciplinary American Studies dissertation reveals otherwise. Beginning by analyzing the appearance of Normality as a regular subject heading in the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature between 1945 and 1963, this project explores how the pressures of war and readjustment made “normality” (re)emerge as one of the most potent epistemological categories of the early post-World War II decades.
Each chapter approaches the broader topic of “normality” through focused, in-depth analysis of one particularly revealing postwar text. The story of “Norm and Norma,” two anthropometric models created in 1943 as supposed statistical composites of the “average” American male and female bodies, shows how the impulse to measure and define the “normal” was taken to the level of the body itself. A postwar fashion remnant, the “gray flannel suit” served as a powerful signifier of middle-class identity, and also a target for sociologists anxious over the slippage between “normality” and conformity. James Jones' 1951 first novel From Here to Eternity, a critical and popular success quickly followed by an Oscar-winning film version, invokes then excises homosexuality in a prewar Army setting, in order to erect and normalize a certain brand of violent male heterosexuality in its place. Meanwhile, in the fictional small town of “Peyton Place,” citizens participate in a culture of “keeping up appearances” through the projection of façades and other-directed performances of identity. Such practices resonated with readers caught in the ambiguities of a postwar morality, making Grace Metalious's 1956 novel one of the first sweeping critiques of this culture of “normality.”
These discrete examples, taken together, reveal much about this “homogenizing category” of culture: that a cultural preoccupation with the idea of normality did exist at this time; that normality was effectively produced and reproduced at the intersections of scientific/intellectual discourse and popular/material practices; and ironically, that normality would prove to be both powerfully coercive and impossible to achieve. Ultimately, this project reveals that “normality” has been both a subject of, and subject to, history.
0591: American literature
0337: American history