AS A CHILD of the '50s, I am more amazed every day to see how much we have memorialized this relatively boring period of our history. Tract homes, TV dinners during "I Love Lucy," everybody liking Ike - and all along great social experiments were taking place.
When I was driving around with the big fuzzy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror of my '47 Chevy, everyone reminisced and reflected on that flamboyant decade called "The Golden '20s."But for a long time now we have been having '50s dances and nostalgically recalling the major figures of the era. Suddenly, they are not as boring as we thought they were.
There have been several books treating the period, such as Stephanie Coontz's "The Way We Never Were" - and this year - Calvin Trillin's "Remembering Denny," a touching personal memoir about an especially promising Yale classmate who committed suicide in his 50s.
Now the most recent and most substantial treatment has come from the highly acclaimed David Halberstam, whose fascinating book, "The Fifties," was just published by Villard Books, New York (800 pages, $27.50).
Although this is a book that anyone who enjoys social history will love reading all the way through, it can also be read selectively by using the index.
You can pull out Marilyn Monroe, for instance, and just read the several pages about her meteoric rise. Although inevitably cast as the traditional dumb blonde, Halberstam says "she was shrewder and smarter than most directors suspected." In fact, director Billy Wilder "saw her as an uncommonly talented comedienne who mimicked the sex-goddess mystique."
When she was filming "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," studio executives thought she was being too demanding. One of them angrily told her, "You're not a star." Her reply was classic: "Well, gentlemen, whatever I am, the name of the picture is `Gentlemen Prefer Blondes' and whatever I am, I am the blonde."
There are numerous personalities who are treated with equal flair: Elvis, Dwight Eisenhower, Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Alger Hiss, James Dean and Nat King Cole.
Halberstam's thesis is that the '50s was "a more interesting and complicated decade than most people imagine" - partly "because so many of the forces which exploded in the '60s had begun to come together in the '50s." These included the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the sexual revolution, the rise of rock and roll, and tragic political assassinations.
In fact, the prominence of Ozzie and Harriet Nelson and their proto-typical TV sitcom American family best symbolized the '50s - a white bread era where families actually liked each other.
"Dads were good dads whose worst sin was that they did not know their way around the house and could not find common household objects, or that they were prone to give lectures about how much tougher things had been when they were boys."
There was a blacker truth underneath, and it rose to the surface in the '60s. In the course of his reminiscence, Halberstam succeeds in portraying that unsettling picture.
If he is not exactly a Frederick Lewis Allen, whose penetrating treatment of the '20s and '30s ("Only Yesterday" and "Since Yesterday"), remains unparalleled, Halberstam has produced the most complete portrait yet.
He could have been more analytical, but the sheer mass of information gives us insight as to why the '50s stand out - and why the problems of the '90s are so severe.