Mad Men: Our Literary Guide

By | March 16, 2012

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We’re mad keen on Americana and Mad Men! Now that Series Five is about to hit the airwaves with a double episode in the US on March 25th & in the UK on March 27th, we’ve decided to compile a reading list for the show – books that we think say something about the characters, the show and the literary and cultural landscape of 60s America.

New York & 60s American suburbia plays an important part in Mad Men as the backdrop of the series but, more importantly, as a milieu that informs and influences the lives Don Draper, Peggy Olson and Roger Sterling, as well as the fashions, mores and anxieties they create and exploit so elegantly in the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce agency.  

Perhaps this series will reveal more about the mysterious Don Draper? Harry Crane remarks in the third episode of the series, ‘Draper? Who knows anything about that guy? No one’s ever lifted that rock. He could be Batman for all we know.’ Flashbacks to the Korean War reveal much – his experience seems to resonate deep within him even after his rise to the top of the glamorous world of advertising. We can see the profound influence of war on the later work of one of our favourite American writers, Kurt Vonnegut. Kurt Vonnegut and the American Novel examines his novels as literary experiments attempting to project a comprehensive vision of life in the United States. Like Mad Men, Vonnegut develops an iconography of American civilization while simultaneously acknowledging the impossibility of a truly comprehensive representation.

Previous storylines and episodes have seen the mercurial Don Draper witness some of the most important intellectual, cultural and historical moments of the age.  Don didn’t seem to enjoy his exposure to the beatnik scene of New York in series one – but it did offer a much needed release from his high pressured job. Though happy to toke on an occasional spliff, he didn’t experience the dark side of this drugs consciousness that soon spawned the resistance of the countercultural movement. Some say that Hunter S Thompson’s novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas can be read as a savage elegy on the expectations of the 1960’s drug culture – William Stephenson explores this, and more, in Gonzo Republic: Hunter S Thompson’s America.

Moving to legal highs, drink certainly flows with abandon in the Mad Men offices, at lunch, after hours, at parties and at home for all the Mad Men stars. Haloed by sharp fashion sense and the evocative smoke of perpetually burning cigarettes, drinking never looked so glamorous. Narcoepics by Hermann Herlinghaus should provide an interesting read, examining the characteristics of addictive cultures and narratives of intoxication in Latin America.

I wonder will we see any more of Sal Romano – former head art director at Sterling Cooper- in the new series? Married, but secretly gay, he was fired from the agency when he rejected the advances of the also married Lee Garner Jr of Lucky Strike. Few will forget his emotive last scene – calling his wife from a pay-phone late at night, in an area of Central Park where gay men frequently meet up, failing to mention that he had lost his job. Whitman’s Queer Children looks at 'the anxious relationship between the homosexual and his American home' – exploring the idea of a ‘gay epic’ in American poetry by examining the work of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1956) and John Ashbury amongst other twentieth century writers.

With a child inside and outside wedlock, the often shiftily ambitious Pete Campbell clearly doesn’t suffer from Portnoy’s complaint, but as a man who keeps up with the times he would know all about Philip Roth winning the National Book Award with his second book Letting Go.  Interestingly, the Korean war plotline explored in the first half of Letting Go doubly echoes Don Draper’s small town roots and his character building but mysterious Korean war experiences. All you could want to know about Philip Roth is covered in this exciting collection Philip Roth: American Pastoral, The Human Stain, The Plot Against America, edited by Debra Shostak.

Mad Men is set in an era when securing an airline account ensured career success and going on a holiday (who can forget that Betty speaks Italian?) or a business trip (Pete looking nervous and uncomfortable poolside in Miami) was unbearably glam and exotic! Christopher Schaberg explores these themes and more in popular culture across literature, film, photography, magazines & music in his acclaimed book The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight.

If the media aren’t obsessing about the representations of masculinity represented by Don, Roger or Pete, (an ideological paradigm covered elegantly by Jonathan Mitchell in his book Revisions of the American Adam: Innocence, Identity & Masculinity in Twentieth Century America) they can’t get enough of Peggy Olson, Betty Draper or Joan Holloway. Hopefully the candid but brief sisterly chat in the office that ended series four is a sign of the first authentic stirrings of 60s feminism that later episodes are sure to explore more fully. We’re excited to be publishing Feminist Theory in fourth edition this year! Written by Josephine Donovan, this major study of feminism takes the reader into twenty first century, offering a powerful vision of a transformed world – no doubt a world that would have seemed a million miles away for the women working on Madison Avenue.

If that hasn’t whetted your literary appetite then take a peek at Must Read: Rediscovering American Bestsellers  - the first scholarly collection to offer both a survey of the evolution of American bestsellers across the centuries, and critical readings of some of the key texts that have shaped the American imagination since the nation’s founding.

And if you still aren't ridiculously excited about the start of Mad Men next week, then head over to the Guardian and read these excellent feature pieces on the characters, all time favourite scenes (mine is episode 9 of the first series, when Betty shoots the pigeons. Or maybe episode 7, series 1, when Don makes Roger climb 23 flights of stairs. Or maybe… I'll stop now) and finally this fascinating account of one woman's experience of an advertising career in 60s Manhattan.

Jenny Tighe

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