More commonly known as the Greatest Generation, the New Gods were in their teens and 20s in the Thirties (1934-43, not to be confused with the the 1930s), and in their 20s and 30s in the Forties (1944-53). Before I explain my decision to call these Americans the New Gods, here's a reminder of my eccentric periodization scheme.
BRAINIAC'S GUIDE TO AMERICA'S RECENT GENERATIONS
Lost Generation The New Kids
Lost Generation Hardboiled Generation
The Greatest Generation Partisans
The Greatest Generation The New Gods
The Silent Generation Postmodernist Generation
The Silent Generation Anti-Anti-Utopian Generation
1944-53: Baby Boomers
Baby Boomers OGX (Original Generation X)
Generation X PC Generation
Generations X/Y Net Generation
Please credit Brainiac/Joshua Glenn whenever you use this guide. Got a beef with my periodization, or different generational name suggestions? Leave a comment on this post or email me. Born between 1954 and 1993 and still unsure about whether you're a Boomer, Xer, Yer, or Millennial? Here's a handy guide.
The 1914-23 generation came of age during the Depression, during which time they were kept busy by the Civilian Conservation Corps "getting things done, building things that worked, things that have lasted to this day," as it's been admiringly put. (Members of the older Partisan cohort, meanwhile, engaged in sit-down strikes in assembly-line industries, and questioned the inevitability of capitalism.) As adults, the 1914-23 generation fought World War II; note that a handful of Americans born in 1924, like George H.W. Bush, saw action in the war, and are honorary members of this generation. After the war, they saved American industry, tamed the business cycle, built the suburbs and moved into them.
As children, the Anti-Anti-Utopians and Boomers revered members of the 1914-23 generation; and as adults, they've continued to do so. In their opinion, their juniors -- the Original Generation X, the PCers, and the Netters have failed to live up to "the greatest generation any society has produced," as Tom Brokaw puts it in his 1998 book, "The Greatest Generation." In their 1991 book, "Generations," meanwhile, pop demographers William Strauss and Neil Howe (who call the Greatests the "GI" generation) gush:
Throughout their lives, [late-born members of the GI Generation] have been America's confident and rational problem-solvers: victorious soldiers and Rosie the Riveters; Nobel laureates; makers of Minuteman missiles, interstate highways, Apollo rockets, battleships, and miracle vaccines; the creator's of Disney's Tomorrowland; "men's men" who have known how to get things done.... World War II provided [them] with a coming-of-age slingshot, a catharsis more heroic and empowering than any since the American Revolution.... No other generation this century has felt (or been) so Promethean, so godlike in its collective, world-bending power. [Italics added.]
Is it any wonder that I find "Greatest" an insufficient superlative for this generation of Americans? By all accounts, they're not mere mortals; they're homo superior. That is to say -- they're superheroes! On the surface they may have looked square, in their gray flannel suits, fedoras, and horn-rimmed glasses. But really they were heroic, empowered, godlike. They seem to have operated in two registers -- the everyday and the mythical -- simultaneously.
This generation produced only one president, but it was John F. Kennedy, who brought the "best and the brightest" into the White House, faced down the Soviet Union, and put a man on the moon. Astronauts Alan Shepard and John Glenn are members of this generation; so is faster-than-sound test pilot Chuck Yeager. Other manly men, actors who played them, and novelists who wrote about them: Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, William Holden, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, Jack Palance, Jack Lord, Ernest Borgnine, Telly Savalas, Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Charles Bronson, James Jones, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, Charlton Heston, James Dickey, James Arness, Rocky Marciano, Jake LaMotta.
Speaking of Mailer and JFK, anyone remember the title of the famously overheated essay that the former wrote about the latter? Right: "Superman Comes to the Supermarket."
The Beats (and let's face it, even though a number of their postmodern juniors jumped on the bandwagon, there were only three Beats: William S. Burroughs, Herbert Huncke, and Jack Kerouac) created their own mythologies and did their best to live inside them. Bebop musicians were saddled with unworldly monikers like Dizzy, Bird, and Thelonious; and world-historical baseball players were named Joltin' Joe and the Splendid Splinter. And Golden Age science fiction authors -- Asimov, Bradbury, Vance, Clarke, Blish, Brackett, del Rey, Pohl, Dickson, Farmer, Herbert, Kornbluth, Miller, Sturgeon -- conjured up ambitious alternate universes and realities.
It was also the Golden Age of superhero comics. Beginning in 1938 with the debut of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's Superman in DC's "Action Comics" no. 1, and continuing through the Forties, superheroes as we know them today were invented and refined, and the comic book made its debut as a mainstream art form. Americans born between 1914 and 1923 -- including comics editors, writers, and artists like Jack Cole, Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Julius Schwartz, Will Eisner, Bill Everett, Carl Burgos, and Sheldon Mayer -- gave us the original incarnations of Superman and Batman, Captain America, Plastic Man, The Spirit, Namor the Sub-Mariner, Daredevil, The Human Torch, Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and the Justice Society of America.
Other comics artists born from 1914-23 -- Will Elder, John Severin, Dave Berg, Al Jaffee -- joined with former EC Comics publisher William Gaines, as well as a bunch of talented members of the postmodern Generation, to bring us Mad Magazine. Bill Mauldin created the "dogfaces" Willie and Joe. Comic strip artists like Charles M. Schulz, Bil Keane, Hank Ketcham, John Cullen Murphy, Dik Browne, Fred Lasswell, Mort Walker, Brant Parker, and Reg Smythe, gave us enduring newspaper strips like (respectively) "Peanuts," "Family Circus," "Dennis the Menace," "Prince Valiant" (Murphy took over from Hal Foster), "Hi and Lois" and "Hagar the Horrible," "Barney Google and Snuffy Smith," "Beetle Bailey," "Wizard of Id," and "Andy Capp." And of course, in the late Fifties (beginning in '61), Stan Lee and Jack "King" Kirby would give us the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Thor, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, the Silver Surfer, Doctor Doom, Galactus, The Watcher, Magneto, the Inhumans, and many more iconic characters.
In Kirby's honor, I've named his entire generation after "The New Gods," a short-lived comic book series that he created for DC in 1971. Kirby's New Gods are a race who lives outside of normal time and space in a dimension called the Fourth World. Although they resemble homo sapiens, they are stronger, faster, and smarter. They possess superior technology; they are immortal. They are, in short, the greatest.
Meet the New Gods.
1914: Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, William S. Burroughs, Ralph Ellison, Joe DiMaggio, George Reeves, Danny Thomas, Ward Kimball, William Westmoreland, Bernard Malamud, Vance Packard, Sun Ra, E.G. Marshall, Ernest Tubb, Jack Cole, Paul Rand, Bill Finger, Joe Lewis, Jackie Coogan, Kenny Clarke, Clayton Moore, Allen Funt, Jack LaLanne, Daniel J. Boorstin, Billy Eckstine, John Berryman, Jonas Salk, John Hersey, Billy Graham, Arthur Kennedy, Howard Fast, Dorothy Lamour, Richard Widmark, Floyd Tillman, Donald A. Wollheim. Elsewhere: Ida Lupino, Alec Guinness, Marguerite Duras, Saul Steinberg, Hammond Innes, Tove Jansson, Julio Cortazar, Thor Heyerdahl, Dylan Thomas, Patrick O'Brian.
1915: Muddy Waters, Billie Holiday, Orson Welles, Frank Sinatra, Julius Schwartz, Robert Motherwell, Arthur Miller, Alan Lomax, Thomas Merton, Zero Mostel, Herman Wouk, Les Paul, Leigh Brackett, David Rockefeller, Bob Kane, Sargent Shriver, Eli Wallach, Herbert Huncke, Lester del Rey, Lorne Greene, Ross Macdonald, Barbara Billingsley. Elsewhere: Anthony Quinn, Moshe Dayan, Saul Bellow, Ingrid Bergman, Roland Barthes, Edith Piaf.
1916: Jackie Gleason, Walter Cronkite, Dinah Shore, Jay McShann, Irving Wallace, Eugene McCarthy, John Ciardi, Walker Percy, Herb Caen, Gregory Peck, Betty Furness, Glenn Ford, Harold Robbins, Carl Burgos, Charlie Christian, Robert McNamara, Fred Lasswell, Elizabeth Hardwick, Martha Raye, Jack Vance, Walter Cronkite, Sherwood Schwartz, Kirk Douglas, Shirley Jackson, Betty Grable. Elsewhere: Olivia de Havilland, Roald Dahl, James Herriot, Francois Mitterrand, Perez Prado, Mary Stewart, Francis Crick.
1917: Dean Martin, John F. Kennedy, Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Manny Farber, Buddy Rich, Ella Fitzgerald, Arthur C. Clarke, Roger W. Straus, Jr., Jane Bowles, Gwendolyn Brooks, Jane Wyman, Jerry Wexler, John Raitt, Robert Mitchum, Ernest Borgnine, Sidney Sheldon, Carson McCullers, Bill Everett, Robert Lowell, Tex Williams, Rufus Thomas, Robert Bloch, Irving Penn, Sheldon Mayer, Katharine Graham, Lena Horne, Phyllis Diller, Dik Browne, Caspar Weinberger, John Lee Hooker, Mel Ferrer, Red Auerbach, Louis Auchincloss, June Allyson, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Elsewhere: Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, James Harry Lacey, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Anthony Burgess, Desi Arnaz, Vera Lynn, Raymond Burr, Eric Hobsbawm, Ferdinand Marcos, Joan Fontaine, Heinrich Boll, Reg Smythe.
1918: Mike Wallace, Rita Hayworth, Art Carney, Oral Roberts, Billy Graham, Elmore James, Howard Cosell, Robert Aldrich, Philip José Farmer, Madeleine L'Engle, Theodore Sturgeon, Stirling Silliphant, John Forsythe, Joey Bishop, Mickey Spillane, Elaine de Kooning, Mercedes McCambridge, Sam Walton, William Holden, Betty Ford, Jack Paar, Richard Feynman, Julius Rosenberg, Eddy Arnold, Ann Landers and Abigail Van Buren, Leonard Bernstein, Ted Williams, E. Howard Hunt, Bob Feller, Spiro Agnew, Jerome Beatty, Jr., Joe Williams. Elsewhere: Ingmar Bergman, Nelson Mandela, Louis Althusser, Gamal Abdal Nasser, Juan Garcia Esquivel, Nicolae Ceauşescu, Muriel Spark, Ida Lupino, Richard Hoggart, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Anwar Sadat.
1919: Pete Seeger, Art Blakey, Jackie Robinson, J. D. Salinger, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ernie Kovacs, Frederik Pohl, Robert Stack, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Jack Palance, Jennifer Jones, Lawrence Tierney, Nat King Cole, Merce Cunningham, John Cullen Murphy, Bernard Krigstein, Liberace, Richard Scarry, Pauline Kael, Anita O'Day. Elsewhere: Paul de Man, Eva Gabor, Eva Peron, Iris Murdoch, Sir Edmund Hillary, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Doris Lessing, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (Shah of Iran), Mikhail Kalashnikov, Dino De Laurentiis .
1920: Charlie Parker, Charles Bukowski, Ray Bradbury, Frank Herbert, Hank Ketcham, Timothy Leary, Saul Bass, Dave Berg, Norman Lear, DeForest Kelley, Walter Matthau, Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, Mario Puzo, Howard Nemerov, Jack Webb, Arthur Hailey, Montgomery Clift, Carmen McRae, Peter O'Donnell, Denver Pyle, Peggy Lee, Brant Parker, Ray Harryhausen, Leona Helmsley, Bella Abzug, Shelley Winters, Mickey Rooney, Jayne Meadows, Dave Brubeck, Jack Lord, Rex Allen. Elsewhere: Isaac Asimov, Eric Rohmer, Richard Adams, Sun Myung Moon, Paul Celan, Federico Fellini, An Wang, James Doohan, Ronald Searle, Alfred Peet, Boris Vian, Werner Klemperer, Ravi Shankar, Thomas Szasz, Pope John Paul II, Yul Brynner, Maureen O'Hara, Ricardo Montalban,
1921: John Glenn, Carol Channing, James Blish, Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith, Will Elder, John Severin, Murray Bookchin, Patricia Highsmith, Donna Reed, Vampira, Mario Lanza, Betty Friedan, Wayne Booth, Abe Vigoda, Betty Hutton, Richard Wilbur, Cyd Charisse, Alan Hale, Jr., Al Jaffee, Harry Carey, Jr., Nelson Riddle, Jake LaMotta, Erroll Garner, Bill Mauldin, Nancy Reagan, Harvey Ball, Gene Roddenberry, Charles Bronson, James Jones, Rodney Dangerfield, Steve Allen. Elsewhere: Raymond Williams, Simone Signoret, Dirk Bogarde, Peter Ustinov, Satyajit Ray, Joseph Beuys, Andrei Sakharov, Leon Garfield, Monty Hall, Stanislaw Lem, Deborah Kerr.
1922: Jack Kerouac, Stan Lee, Charles Mingus, Les Baxter, Judy Garland, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Ava Gardner, William Gaines, Charles M. Schulz, William Gaddis, Howard Zinn, Bea Arthur, Ray Goulding, Hal Clement, Dorothy Dandridge, Betty White, Quinn Martin, Telly Savalas, Arthur Penn, Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, Kathryn Grayson, Helen Gurley Brown, Carl Reiner, Russ Meyer, Thomas Kuhn, Bil Keane, Sid Caesar, Jackie Cooper, Barbara Bel Geddes, Veronica Lake. Elsewhere: Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, Samuel Youd (John Christopher), Paul Scofield, Patrick Macnee, Yitzhak Rabin, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Christopher Lee, Denholm Elliott, Yma Sumac, José Saramago,
1923: Hank Williams, Alan Shepard, Norman Mailer, Chuck Yeager, Sam Phillips, Joseph Heller, Charlton Heston, Philly Joe Jones, Fats Navarro, Cyril M. Kornbluth, James Schuyler, Walter M. Miller, Jr., Jim Reeves, Philip Whalen, Bob Elliott, Jean Stapleton, Anthony Hecht, Paddy Chayefsky, James Dickey, Dexter Gordon, Ed McMahon, Don Adams, Bettie Page, Aaron Spelling, Albert King, Al Lewis, Anne Baxter, James Arness, Bob Dole, Rocky Marciano, Mort Walker, Bob Barker, Sumner Redstone, Tiny Tim. Elsewhere: Denise Levertov, Nadine Gordimer, Hugh Kenner, Brendan Behan, Franco Zeffirelli, Marcel Marceau, Henry Kissinger, Italo Calvino, Gordon R. Dickson, Freeman Dyson.
Honorary members of the New Gods: comics editor Joe Simon, George H.W. Bush (1913); Lee Marvin, bop drummer Max Roach (1924). New Gods who are honorary members of the postmodern Generation: Sam Phillips, Italo Calvino, Tiny Tim (1923).
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His last article for Ideas was about choosing Congress by lottery.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.