In Search of Lost Time: Notes on Mad Men and Alice Munro

by |
12/01/2009 4:00 AM |

The characters of Mad Men, new to the 60s and dressed in last season’s clothes, tend to think of the world they inhabit in terms of the 50s and earlier, and so do we. Professionally, Mad Men‘s mid-level man’s world of stale white privilege and casual alcoholism reminds us of John O’Hara, while the Draper residence in Westchester is a deliberate homage the stories of quiet suburban desperation John Cheever began writing in the postwar years; the acknowledged ur-text is Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, published in 1961 and coming to terms with mid-50s archetypes.

Next season, though, will be the first one set during the LBJ years; references to the civil and gay rights movements, and the war in Vietnam, have stepped forward from the background. And the archetypal frosting-blonde 50s housewife, Betty Draper—the bride on the wedding cake, as she was once called—was last seen flying to Reno for a divorce. With Mad Men‘s narrative, as the characters understand it, going off the rails, perhaps we should come up with some new literary antecedents with which to pretty up our critical discourse.

Betty is probably too old for free love, but the right age for its aftershocks. (She seems too blueblooded to ever end up in the sad swinging suburbia of The Ice Storm, but just give Francine a few more years…) In “Differently,” by Alice Munro, a woman looks back at the 60s, in a letter addressed to a friend of her youth:

I’ve been thinking of all of us, really, how we were, fifteen or so years ago, and I think we were just as vulnerable in some ways as the kids with their acid trips and so on, that were supposed to be marked for life. Weren’t we marked-all of us smashing up our marriages and going out looking for adventure?

(The letter’s recipient wonders whether this woman, with her “expensive pastel plaid shirtdresses, her neat, short, fair hair, her good manners… really think[s] she had gone out looking for adventure under the influence of dope and rock music and revolutionary costumes… [I]n due time [she] married another, presumably more trustworthy doctor.”)

Like Betty Draper, Alice Munro was born in the early 1930s, married in the early 1950s, and set aside professional ambitions to raise three children. The Munros divorced in 1972, a decade after the Drapers. (While Don stifled Betty’s attempts at restarting her modeling career, Munro published her first two books in 1968 and 1971; in the early 60s, a Vancouver Sun profile was entitled “Housewife Finds Time to Write Short Stories.”) A mother of three in her early 40s, Munro at the time of her divorce seems young only in light of everything that she’s accomplished since.