History | Elvis and Postwar America
A225 | 2810 | Bodnar
World War II changed everything. In the fifteen years after the war
ended, fundamental beliefs in American society were challenged. The
war had caused Americans to believe that they were a nation of good
citizens who defeated the evil empires of Germany and Japan and that
the postwar world would be a period of peace and prosperity.
Americans saw themselves as noble people who fought a good war, were
devoted to their families, and eager consumers who would enjoy the
material benefits of a consumer society. After winning the war the
Americans saw themselves as patriotic, selfless, family oriented
people who were in store for a better life.
The events of the postwar period, however, upset optimistic visions
of the future. New anxieties over the violent nature of all men who
had fought in the war, over the existence of atomic bombs, and over
the behavior of teenagers now worried citizens who had expected more
tranquility in the postwar era. Old ways were suddenly under
attack. Barriers to racial integration were falling apart and the
press was filled with a sense of "panic" over revelations of sexual
crimes and violence in American society. This changing culture was
often reflected in films of the late 1940s that reflected a more
somber, darker view of American society. In this new postwar
climate of change, a new version of American manhood became
popular. Men like Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley conveyed images
of sexual excitement and individual fulfillment that stood in stark
contrast to the veneration of marriage and sacrifice that
characterized the wartime era. Elvis, in a sense, emerges in 1954
as a marker of a new age, one less interested in the sacrifices that
war and marriage had required.
The course will consist of lectures, films, discussions, and
readings. We will analyze American life from the era of World War
II until the late 1950s. We will view films like "Its a Wonderful
Life", "A Streetcar Named Desire", and "Blackboard Jungle".
Students will read several books, including Peter Guralnick's, "Last
Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley". There will be at
least two essay exams and some writing assignments that require the
integration of material from films, lectures, and readings.