October 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 5
Overrated J. R. Eyerman’s 1952 photograph, which first appeared in Life magazine, shows people watching a 3-D movie in a New York theater and is known to millions—deservedly so. It neatly encapsulates how America became a place of crass, mindless conformity in the course of the 1950s.
Except, of course, that America didn’t. The 1950s live on as a stereotype thanks largely to images such as this. In fact, they were a period characterized by considerably more creativity, individualism, and outright rebellion than our own era. The booming postwar years saw bold new movements in art, literature, and, yes, even film, along with the beginning of the civil rights revolt, an unprecedented number of working women, outraged investigations of everything from the mob to television, and continuous, running critiques any time conformity reared its ugly head. Even prefabricated model suburbs such as Levittown were quickly remodeled by their residents into individualized homes, and 3-D movies went nowhere.
Underrated This photograph, not much celebrated, is a shot of Lincoln’s funeral cortege approaching Union Square, in New York City, as it makes its long, sad way back from Washington to Springfield. The only remarkable thing about it is the two little heads, barely visible in the window of the corner of the house on the left. They are the six-year-old Teddy Roosevelt and his younger brother Elliott, the future father of Eleanor, watching from the second floor of the home of their grandfather Cornelius Van Schaak Roosevelt, at 849 Broadway. (A third head would have been visible, but the two boys had already locked Teddy’s future wife Edith Kermit Carow in a back bedroom for having had the effrontery to cry.)
This is a coincidence nearly equal in our history to that of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams’s dying on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and the heralds of their deaths passing in front of Philadelphia’s Constitution Hall. It conveys as well as anything could how intimate our country was in 1865, how quickly it was to grow in size and power and influence. Lincoln’s death, of course, came as we had finally settled the questions of slavery and national unity. One of the little boys in the window would be the first person to project American power around the globe, from San Iuan Hill to the championing of the Great White Fleet. The son-in-law of the other would be mourned by the nation 80 years to the month after this photograph was taken, having brought the United States to the pinnacle of world power.