I find it off-putting when a writer begins a short essay with a lengthy excerpt from a famous author; if the prose is strong enough it’s unnecessary to use that crutch. It’s even worse when the story that follows is exceedingly naïve—even dumb—which is the case with Jenna Stocker’s July 21st Substack entry “Fifty Years of American Graffiti: A film and a nation come of age." (She quotes Dostoevsky, Henry Luce and the “prolific” (you don’t say!) Tom Wolfe.) Stocker, who wasn’t born when American Graffiti was released in 1973—let alone director George Lucas’ Modesto, California setting of 1962—idealizes both the film and era to an asinine degree. No objection here to historians writing books or articles about events that preceded their birth—Richard Brookhiser is one standout, with his volumes about Washington, Hamilton, Madison and John Marshall and Lincoln, for example—but Stocker’s research is slipshod.
She writes: “America was coming of age. By the early 1960s, the country enjoyed a confidence that launched a thousand dreams before it turned a corner mid-decade and found itself lost in a fun-house mirror of unrest, unsure of itself, disoriented in the midst of rapid change, and leaving people asking, ‘Where were you in ‘62.'"
A more broad-minded and circumspect writer than Stocker, if presented with the nebulous, many-answers question of when the United States “came of age” would, considering just the 20th century, suggest the Great Depression, which dominated the mindset of millions of Americans, or World War II, a period when young men and women fought overseas, worked in factories, rationed food, followed the frightening news on radio and put their lives on hold until the Allies’ victory in 1945.
Those two intertwined eras, coming in succeeding decades, had an impact greater than the admittedly tumultuous, TV-saturated post-Kennedy assassination 1960s. My mother, whose family was spared financial ruin after the 1929 crash, retained a fear of another wipeout for the rest of her life; my paternal grandfather, who owned a jewelry shop in Massachusetts, was wiped out by 1930, and led to my father’s frugal mindset. I grew up on Long Island in the 1960s, in an area where a lot of my friends were Jewish, yet anti-Semitism was prevalent. One close friend’s father told him, “It’s not smart to join in schoolyard fights, but if someone calls you a ‘yid’ or ‘kike’ you should punch the moron in the nose. Level him.”
There was an older German couple, the Jaegers, who tended a very small farm just through the woods from our cul-de-sac neighborhood. They kept to themselves—Mr. Jaeger was a grump who devilishly hoarded softballs that went over the fence into their yard—but my mom got on with Mrs. Jaeger. I had lunch—wurst, red cabbage and potato dumplings—in their dark and forbidding home several times, which, at eight, I found intimidating at first, but grew to like the warm-hearted lady. At that age, a scholar of Gene Schoor’s sanitized baseball biographies and the daily comics, but not world history, I never asked about her past in Nazi Germany. One family on our block had a double-whammy: the parents were divorced and German; as I recall, the only child was withdrawn and didn’t have much to do with the boisterous bunch of neighborhood kids.
I saw American Graffiti not long after its release in 1973—my college had a terrific film series—and the hype was so pervasive that friends and I looked forward to it, only to be sorely disappointed not only by the humdrum storyline, one night in ’62, the last day of summer vacation, where four pals pursue diverse interests, but by the soundtrack, since I’d heard the songs hundreds to times growing up. Among my cohorts, most knew the words to “Rock Around the Clock,” “Runaway,” “That’ll Be the Day,” “The Great Pretender” and “Johnny B. Goode,” among so many others. I watched American Graffiti 15 years ago with one of my sons, and we didn’t finish it. Booker said, “It’s one long music video.”
Wolfman Jack? Old news. FM radio, since around 1967, was the new soundtrack for millions (mostly white) of young men and women. Stocker, who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2004, and writes for a host of conservative websites, including the usually atrocious The Federalist and Newsmax, has, to my eye, a warped view of that time.
She continues: “The contrast between 1973 America and the one only a dozen years earlier was as clear and pronounced as the big screen of a drive-in: peering into a past of heady, halcyon nostalgia and warm memories of innocence and youth and vigor… it stands out as an enduring and endearing Kodachrome moment of Americana.” She leaves out that this “Kodachrome moment of Americana” ignores racial segregation, when blacks were referred to as “colored” and treated like dirt, not just in Bull Connor and George Wallace’s South, but in cities across the country, notably Boston (whose baseball team the Red Sox were the last to integrate in 1959), Los Angeles and Baltimore, which is still, in 2023, a de facto segregated city, a disgrace that the city’s local government, dominated by black men and women, have no interest in addressing.
Stocker’s conclusion is particularly galling: “Are we still the America of 1962? I don’t know. But at least we have a record [the film American Graffiti] of what it was like in that America—a reminder that the sophisticated and complex, faster world isn’t necessarily a better or happier world. That some things look better under a neon sign, and sometimes you must leave a place to find your place.”
I do know that we’re not “still the America of 1962.” Fortunately. Ask any cancer or heart patient if they’d prefer to be treated in a 1962 hospital. And, although I dislike the ramshackle media of the 21st century and the ginned-up political “discourse,” that’s trifling compared to the Red Scare and blacklists of the early-1950s. Stocker’s in early-middle age and you’d think she’d know that.
—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023