Why do we love those unlovable men of the 1950s and early '60s?
You can see them in the award-winning TV series "Mad Men" or in the blockbuster movie, "Revolutionary Road." Organization men by day, they took the 7:51 a.m. train to work in their long trench coats and dark hats. But at night they became hard-bitten tough guys.
Locked in their domestic prisons, wives suffered in silence or pleaded in vain for some kind of emotional support. Their husbands were "providers," of course, but only in a narrow economic sense. They didn't go in for any of that touchy-feely stuff.
Maybe that's why we can't get enough of them. In a culture saturated by public displays of intimate information, there's something very seductive about a man who keeps everything bottled up inside.
But there's more. Behind the cult of the '50s man lies the fallacy of progress: the idea that the present must always be more advanced, sophisticated, and insightful than the past. And that's the real seduction. By gazing backward at the repressed '50s men, we can congratulate ourselves at how far we have come.
Only, we haven't. And here's how I know: A few years ago, I read my mother's love letters from the 1950s.
It was a strange experience, to say the least, but it made me reconsider what I thought about '50s men.
Other historians have been doing the same. Most recently, University of Maryland historian James Gilbert showed that men of the 1950s were much more complicated – and much more expressive – than our stereotypes would suggest.
My mother's letters came from 11 different suitors. All of them were white, middle-class and college-educated. And they displayed an emotional range that many men today would envy.
Listen to Murray Schechter, who desperately wanted to marry my mother. "I really want to just let myself go – and write what I feel – that's perhaps one of the hardest things to do in life," Murray wrote in November 1952.
But he pressed on. "I sometimes think the word love is inadequate to express all the tender and stirring emotions I feel – it's the little things – the sound of your voice – the way you walk – your eyes. I can't stand being alone."
For men, then, the '50s were a period of profound emotional restriction: It was hard to write what they felt. But they did it, anyway. In the same breath, these men acknowledged the constraint of their times and resolved to overcome it.
And it wasn't always pretty. "I'm sorry that I'm so bitter – but I can't help it," Murray wrote my mother, just before she terminated the relationship. "I really feel that with all this difficulty between us – since I love you so much – that my life is just going to hell right under me."
Or consider Peter Lewisohn, another jilted suitor. "Guess I'll just revert back into my impregnable shell, for the present anyway." Peter's very need for shelter from emotions showed how deeply they had touched him.
Still other correspondents poked fun at the popular notion of the poker-faced male. "Look, Baby, this is hard for me to do," wrote Paul Zimmerman. "We been goin' together for awhile and I guess I can talk to you, but this is still hard. Yeah, honey, hard.... Sure, it's gonna be dangerous and chances of me ever comin' back to you are about 1,000,000 to one. But hold back what you feel."
Murray Schechter and Peter Lewisohn are pseudonyms, of course; Paul Zimmerman is not. He's my father. So I also found out a lot about how he negotiated the key emotional rule of '50s culture: Hold back what you feel.
Sometimes, as in the passage above, he did it through humor and satire. But at other times, he was much more direct. Shortly after he asked my mom to get married, my dad began to wonder if he had made the wrong decision. And then he righted himself.
"I can't see how I ever could have doubted my need for you, or your meaning to me," He wrote my mother, in April of 1957. "You are the one who is going to make me a complete individual, and for this I'm grateful in advance." I'm grateful, too, that they let me see these letters, which taught me more about them – and the 1950s – than I ever knew. Maybe it's time we stopped patronizing '50s men, and started listening to them instead. We've got a lot to learn.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory," which will be published in June.