I’ve recently finished the first draft of my second novel, “Under the Bed”. It’s set in New York in both 1969 and 1952. Time and place are integral to the story; the commonality between the two eras is anti-communism in the USA. I’ll only deal with the 1950’s in this blog.
“McCarthyism”, which was at the heart of the anti-communist movement, started in the late forties. You may be aware of the havoc and horror the Hollywood blacklist had on the lives of actors and screenwriters, many of whom were banned from writing or acting. Their careers, and often their entire lives were left in shambles. A number also went to jail. Dashiell Hammett is one of the more famous names of people who served time. He died a year after his release. Lillian Hellman, was also brought before by the House Un-American Activities Committee – HUAC. She took a landmark stand, later known as the ‘Diminished Fifth’, in which she was willing to talk about her own activities but refused to talk of others .
Paul Robeson and Charlie Chaplin were also victims of the HUAC. Chaplin, who was born in England, was refused re-entry into the USA in 1952, and ultimately never returned to America. Paul Robeson’s passport was confiscated, leaving him unable to work abroad – he was already blacklisted from working in America. His career as a singer and his International Human Rights advocacy work were severely curtailed.
Influence of the House Un-American Activities Committee, reached far beyond Hollywood into many professions, including those in public service. University professors and elementary schoolteachers were asked to sign an oath swearing that they were not, nor ever had been a member of the Communist Party. Those who refused, which many did on principle, lost their jobs.
All serious stuff – but in researching the period, I came across some hilarious footage from the public service announcement of the ‘Duck and Cover Campaign’ that told people, and especially schoolchildren, what to do in the case of a nuclear attack – “Why, duck and cover of course!”.
Its simplicity might seem ludicrous to us now – perhaps it did to many people at the time – but it gives us a certain insight into an era of fear, tinged with naïveté , in the USA of the 1950’s.
I love the whole idea of exploring different time and place in writing. They’re usually the two challenges I first set myself when I start a new project. It’s so important in a novel in setting the tone.
Where do you set your work? Is it is always in the present, or in the town or country where you live? How does time and place affect your choice in the novels you read?
Let me know – I’d love to hear from you.