January 3, 2014

Leo Braudy on 'Trying To Be Cool'

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You’ve written books on literature, film, and cultural history. What made you decide to write a memoir?

At one time I had thought I would write a cultural history of the 1950s, but I gradually realized “Hey, you lived through it,” and that it would be somehow false to separate my own history from it. I have been working on what became Trying To Be Cool for almost 25 years. While I was working on other projects, it was always there as a backdrop or undertone.

Although your book is autobiographical, readers in search of a coming-of-age story might be surprised by the absence of a conventional narrative about overcoming adversity. How would you characterize what you are doing in Trying To Be Cool?

Although stories of overcoming great odds—whether within a tyrannical family or amid great historical events—can be fascinating, I think they separate the reader from the main character: “Wow, his/her life was really hard/exciting/weird/unprecedented. Nothing like that ever happened to me.” Instead, my feeling about my younger self, and my character in the book, was that my thoughts, experiences, and aspirations were so similar to those of many other people. My life was my own, but I also wanted to show how it was in various ways characteristic of a time and a place.

The characters you write about are often more vividly drawn than the narrator himself. How did you see yourself while writing the book?

To a great extent I am an observer in the book, trying to figure out the world of the 1950s and its mysteries. And the ’50s were a period in American history in which mystery and innuendo were everywhere, in foreign policy, in political paranoia, in song lyrics, and in the horror and science-fiction movies, with all their shambling monsters. I’m not quite a total bystander because I do get involved in many events, but on the whole I’m trying to learn from a whole host of possible and sometimes impossible teachers. Maybe I’m like one of those guilty bystanders in the Hitchcock films of the ’50s, who are always getting lured into situations by their own curiosity.

Another surprising aspect of Trying To Be Cool is the layered structure, with overlapping strands of time that circle back on themselves. How did memory and imagination figure into your writing?

Music has always been a great influence on my sense of how stories can be told, and I often have music of all kinds—rock, classical, American song book, etc.—playing while I write. In the cultural histories I’ve written before Trying To Be Cool, for the most part I’ve followed a chronological structure, even though certain themes may emerge, submerge, and re-emerge along the way in a musical fashion. But if there’s any distinction to be made between autobiography, say, and memoir, it’s that autobiography tends to follow chronological sequence, while memoir is a compound of memory and imagination. One thing leads to another emotionally, and the story has to follow that emotional logic, whatever the actual sequence of events. Each of the chapters in Trying To Be Cool is titled by a song lyric. Music sets the mood, memory gathers the facts, and imagination creates the story.

Truth in nonfiction generally, and particularly in memoirs and autobiographies, is far from a straightforward notion. You acknowledge in your afterword that some of the names of the characters are made up. What are the appropriate standards of, and limitations on, the notion of truth in memoirs?

If a public figure is writing an autobiography, a memoir, or whatever it might be called about public events, there is an obvious obligation to check verifiable facts. Otherwise the author’s impressions and opinions are unanchored. But I’m a private person writing about a period in my life when my own story and the national culture resonated with each other. In Trying To Be Cool  when I occasionally mention public events, I did attempt to be sure in what order they really happened: Did the movie The Thing come out before or after the song “The Thing”? But finally Trying To Be Cool is not a history of the 1950s. It is the story of my 1950s.

The popular culture that you describe is far more diverse than is apparent from the conventional view of the 1950s as an age of “conformity.” Looking backwards through the lens of the 1960s, what can we learn from the earlier decade about the culture of “youth”?

Without understanding the incredibly diverse popular culture of the 1950s, I think it’s impossible to understand where the 1960s came from. The national media of the 1950s kept talking about “conforming to nonconformity “and “The Silent Generation,” with little sense of the cultural and political ferment that was occurring below the radar. Although the concept of the teenager had been around in social psychology since the early 20th century, it was not until the post-WWII period that the “problem” of the teenager became a public issue, mocked and feared by adult pundits from the left and the right. Part of the reason was that, after the economically tight world of the Depression and the diverted resources of WWII, teenagers had money to spend on their own pleasures.

Music and popular culture in general in the 1950s were far more fragmented by race, class, and even geography than they are today. Although the 1950s were criticized for the pervasiveness of “mass culture,” this first decade of the 21st century actually seems far more homogeneous. Do your students enjoy the same sense of discovery and “subversiveness” that you and your friends enjoyed more than five decades ago? Does “cool” mean today what it did then?

I would turn the question around and say that, rather than “fragmented,” the popular culture of the 1950s was much more geographically, socially, and ethnically diverse than it is now when those differences are given lip service but are actually swallowed up and blanded out by the big entertainment conglomerates. It was so easy to be different then, to discover the great stations on the right of the radio dial or the peculiar magazines, writers, and genres. It’s a lot harder to be “cool” now, if “cool” means having a uniquely personal view of the world, something that makes others take notice. The main stream has become a flood.  Is it inevitable in an increasingly complicated modern world that every older generation thinks the younger generation has become too corporatized, too coddled, and too limited? “Cool” today has lost its old subversive edge. When I hear young people use it, it tends just to mean “okay” or “a little better than usual.”

Although your books span many topics and disciplines, common themes run through them. How does Trying To Be Cool fit into your larger career as a writer and scholar?

In books like The Frenzy of Renown and From Chivalry to Terrorism, I wanted to explore how aspects of human nature that we often to think of as eternal, like the desire for fame or the nature of masculinity, actually have an intricate and complex history, and are affected by the differences in political systems, the available means of communication, and a host of other factors. It’s that connection between the emotional and the historical that particularly intrigues me. Trying To Be Cool looks at that connection from a more personal angle, my own naïve and somewhat hapless efforts to figure out what growing up means, both in general and in the context of what I think is a much misunderstood period of American life.

What can we expect from you next?

I’ve been working on a book tentatively called Haunted about the history of horror and fear, not just movie horror or literary horror, although they play important roles in it. It arises from a course I’ve taught for several years called "The Monster and the Detective," which stretches from the late-18th century origins of horror fiction to the present. The monster is the figure of disorder and chaos, the detective is the seeker for order and reason. These two complementary figures help define how we deal with what frightens us, in dreams and in reality, for the last couple of centuries. Once again, I suppose, I’m looking at some basic emotions and trying to explore how they have a history.

Read more about Leo Braudy here.

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