Significant Subjects

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Samuel Johnson may have said that no subject is too insignificant for so insignificant an animal as man, but those who embrace the trivial often try to place their obsessions in the largest possible context. I know something about this, having gone through the exercise with various infatuations of my own.

For many years I chased after occupational shaving mugs. Porcelain cylinders about the size of a diner coffee cup, each with its owner’s name emblazoned on it in gold along with a bright little painting of his occupation, they bloomed on racks in turn-of-the-century barbershops. One can scarcely imagine a humbler tradition, but I promoted them as folk art of the Industrial Revolution, as emblems of the hard and eager work with which the nineteenth century built the twentieth. (This proselytizing was not universally effective: When I proudly showed my colleague Ellen my latest acquisition—it depicted a steam shovel—she peered into the mug, envisioned the semi-liquid soap it spent its career containing, and said, “I think it’s like collecting dead people’s underwear.”)

From time to time in my life I’ve tried to lay the same burden of grandiosity on old postcards, certain horror movies, the singer Tiny Tim, amusement parks, and so forth, and so I was perhaps too alert to a whiff of enthusiastic overreaching when Max Rudin started talking to me about doing a story on the larger significance of the Rat Pack.

My perception of them had jelled about thirty years back, when, looking at the Pack with the pitiless eyes of late adolescence, I saw only a bunch of preening old souses saying things like “va-va-voom” to women in tight sweaters before singing lounge music that had none of the dynamic purity of the Sopwith Camel or whatever it was I was listening to at the time.

I was wrong: wrong about the Rat Pack and wrong about the legitimacy of Max’s high claims for it. In his impressive essay the Pack proves to be a revelatory lens through which to examine their time.

That time was the 1960s, of course, and the Rat Pack reminds us what a truly complex decade it was—two decades, actually, compressed into one. The first represented—and was represented by—the Rat Pack’s apogee. Its members were at ease with their ethnicity in a way that no pre-war generation had ever been (indeed, one of them was black); they radiated soigné sexuality spiked with a frisson of violence; they celebrated a prosperity that mirrored the prosperity of the nation. It carried them a long way—all the way to the White House. But it was a mixture as volatile as the era itself, and like the era, it disintegrated into slapstick tragedy.

That was the second half of the decade, a time of sad and angry revelations, none of them sadder or angrier than the divergence of race and ethnicity. It happened in the country, just as it happened in the Rat Pack with Sammy Davis, Jr.’s growing disaffection with the group, the fraying of the chummy idea that the mere fact of inclusion was progress enough.

I think Max has thoroughly justified claims so lofty I initially distrusted them. His essay reminds us that everything happens for a reason and that there was a real reason why for a while these guys lounging around a bar cart had a hold not only on the national imagination but on our head of state. The story helps me understand the brilliant and calamitous decade that I entered at twelve and left at twenty-two and whose vibrations are still running through my life and everyone else’s who was alive then.

It also gives encouragement to that sheepish zeal that I suspect never leaves the collector. Perhaps, after all, Samuel Johnson was right in his dictum but too severe in its formulation; perhaps there are no insignificant subjects.

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