Mad Men, the most literary show on television?

By | March 27, 2012

As mentioned previously on this blog, we are big fans of all things Americana and in particular, the television phenomenon that is Mad Men. So much so, that we put together our own literary guide to Mad Men on this blog last week. But we are not the only ones, the Daily Telegraph have also spotted the literary merits of Mad Men declaring it 'one of the most literary television shows of recent times'.

'For a start, its style is markedly less cinematic than the other big American series of the current golden age. The settings are mostly interiors and the dialogue is deliberately theatrical — as creator Matthew Weiner has said, elevated rather than natural and without any of the overlapping speech used to denote realism in shows like the West Wing. More importantly, within those celebrated Sixties trappings, this is a series that’s always concerned with, and sometimes explicitly refers to, several recurring and often timeless themes in American literature.

Take the town where the main character Don Draper lived in the first three series. Of all New York suburbs in which a mysterious but unfailingly charismatic advertising executive could have tucked away his family, the one chosen by Weiner was Ossining: from 1961 until his death in 1982, the home of John Cheever. Dubbed “the Chekhov of the suburbs” or, more extravagantly, “the Ovid of Ossining”, Cheever was, even before Updike, the first American writer to establish the now-familiar literary picture of suburban frustration, status anxiety and marriages cracking under the strain of their own unrealistic expectations. In a 2009 article on Cheever, The New York Times listed the main themes of his work as “secrecy, doubleness, sorrow, the comforts of sex, the perils of alcohol, the suddenness and fleetingness of joy” — which, as a 17-word summary of Don Draper’s life, is pretty hard to beat.

As for a 10-worder, how about this from The New Yorker a few months earlier: “He is both a rank escapist and a conservative pragmatist”? That’s the critic James Wood describing “midcentury American suburban man” as depicted in Revolutionary Road by Cheever’s fellow suburbanite (and alcoholic) Richard Yates — a book that Weiner is known to have handed out to the Mad Men cast to help them understand the social background…’

In our last Mad Men blog post we wondered whether 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 – as is picked up by the Telegraph:

‘ As almost everybody knows by now — although it took his wife Betty three series — Don isn’t Don at all. He’s a prostitute’s child called Dick Whitman, who stole the identity of a dead fellow soldier in Korea. (More obsessive spotters of literary references might have noticed that the real Don was buried in a town called Bunbury, the name used to signify a double life in The Importance of Being Earnest.) In The Human Stain, where the main character, Coleman Silk, is a black man “passing” as white, Philip Roth claims this kind of reinvention as another great American tradition — “the democratic invitation to throw your origins overboard if to do so contributes to the pursuit of happiness”. Not only that, but the most famous literary example of this, from 1926, is another obvious influence on Mad Men.

Like Dick Whitman, F Scott Fitzgerald’s Jimmy Gatz is from a poor Midwestern background, becomes a decorated war hero, and finally makes it in New York under a different name — in his case, Jay Gatsby.’

Moving to the female characters of the show and the stirrings of 60’s feminism (another key aspect of the show discussed in our literary guide), the Telegraph highlight that:

'The Twenties are often seen as the last blast of American hedonism before Depression and war put fun on hold until the Mad Men era. Yet, they were also a revolutionary decade for women, particularly in New York, as they daringly smoked, drank and slept around. At the same time, the pattern familiar from Mad Men was also put in place: married men had their wives in the suburbs and their mistresses in the city.

It’s a period that’s tellingly chronicled by the likes of Dorothy Parker and Edna St Vincent Millay, both of whom wrote mainly from the perspective of the mistress: sometimes defiantly, sometimes with a kind of breezy ruefulness and sometimes with a much darker awareness of the emotional cost. All three attitudes are shared by Peggy in Mad Men, who began as a secretary in episode one and has been working her way up ever since, all the while trying to shake off her Catholic Brooklyn background and become a proper Manhattan girl. ‘ 

But what about the very image of America in Mad Men itself?

‘Every now and then, usually to something of a media fanfare, a British writer produces what’s still called a Condition of England novel. There is, by contrast, virtually no big American novel that doesn’t tackle the condition of America. (Or as Martin Amis once put it, “every ambitious American novelist is trying to write a novel called USA”.) In the end, needless to say, this is also Mad Men’s overriding interest.

The big events are all there — from the Cuban missile crisis to the assassination of JFK. So, too, is the unease about the failure of the American dream for people like Betty Draper and Don’s ambitious colleague Pete Campbell, who’ve obeyed all the rules, but don’t seem to be getting the promised rewards — especially the happiness part.’

That has certainly opened up my eyes and literary understanding of the show. Are there any other literary allusions that you have spotted? We'd love to hear them.

You can read the full Daily Telegraph article here.

Jenny Tighe

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