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In the well-known episode with Burgess Meredith we see both his boss and his wife take exception to his penchant for reading. His boss, perhaps rightly somewhat, objects to his using company time; but his wife is this horrifying character who destroyed a book of poetry (IIRC) and was amused when Meredith's character discovers this.

I recall really being as horrified as the main character was — what kind of person would destroy a book? It was not even like she wanted his company or something — she just wanted to deprive him of a pleasure, but also seemed to feel that it was a very odd thing to indeed read for pleasure.

My question is, was this a comment by the writer about anti-intellectualism in the 1960s — the main character was actually a little off? Or were his wife and boss the atypical ones?


I recall that the advent of the Eisenhower presidency had something to do with this anti-intellectualism — I did not IIRC make this idea up. Famously, when Ike was compared with Stevenson, the former was described as someone one would invite to a BBQ but the latter not so much. I think Ike was an intelligent and good man, but of course intellectual is different than intelligent.

I think if one researched it further, one would find that anti-communism and anti-intellectualism are related and maybe this is something about the 1950s and 1960s that The Twilight Zone is revealing. If I think about it, most The Twilight Zone episodes seemed to have "regular folks" as main characters — and if they wuzn't, they were evil guys who read books or worse ineffectual guys who read poetry.

EDIT:

I note (I should have looked there first) that the wikipedia article does mention in passing, without exploring it, anti-intellectualism. Also, and I think very exceptionally indeed for a TZ episode that first aired 63 years ago now, the author of the original short story, Lynn Venable is still with us. This is possibly the only episode of TZ from the first season where this is case. There are occasional cases where actors who were adults in the episode are also still with us but, for example, all three main characters were born more than 110 years ago.

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  • I don't believe Adlai Stevenson (the one who ran for president twice in the 1950s) was any more of a book-lover or "intellectual" than you would expect a bureaucrat/politician to be, although there was a myth to that effect.
    – user14111
    Nov 23 at 1:24

1 Answer 1

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It was a common trope in that era to portray couples (like the Bickersons, the Kravitzes (from Bewitched), etc.) who loathed each other, but had no legal cause for divorce:

Prior to the advent of no-fault divorce, a divorce was processed through the adversarial system as a civil action, meaning that divorce could be obtained only through a showing of fault of one (and only one) of the parties in a marriage. This required that one spouse plead that the other had committed adultery, abandonment, felony, or other similarly culpable acts. However, the other spouse could plead a variety of defenses, like recrimination (essentially an accusation of "so did you"). A judge could find that the respondent had not committed the alleged act or the judge could accept the defense of recrimination and find both spouses at fault for the dysfunctional nature of their marriage. Either of these two findings was sufficient to defeat an action for divorce, which meant that the parties remained married.

So Henry Bemis couldn't divorce his wife without her consent (which she wasn't going to give) — but neither of them had any motivation to make life pleasant for each other. The wife's destruction of his book was probably just an example of how she tormented him (and he may well have done things that deliberately bothered her), and at the time, the audience recognized that kind of couple (a couple that made each other miserable but were stuck with each other).

I don't think anti-intellectualism was a significant factor - books were just a pleasure that Bemis used pre-bomb to escape from the minor troubles of his life. After dipping into despair postbomb (approaching suicide) he discovered that that chance for escape still existed - only to have that brief hope snatched away again. It wasn't particularly important that Bemis' joy was in books - it was that his joy was dangled in front of him in the midst of despair and than taken away immediately. If his joy had been dancing by himself to polka music his wife would have delighted in smashing his records, his boss would have berated him for whistling polkas at the bank, and the gods of irony would have broken his knees just after he found a phonograph and a pile of polka records.

Note that a classic motif of The Twilight Zone is opening with a mundane situation and upending it — Bemis living with his unhappy marriage and work life is the ordinary situation upended by the bomb.

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    I agree. In addition, Mrs Bemis probably would have preferred a more ambitious husband who made more money and didn't work for peanuts at a low-status job. She evidently blamed his reading as impractical, and distracting him from goals that she thought were more important. Nov 22 at 15:41
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    I like this answer very much. In my own lifetime, I have witnessed divorce go from being a fairly exotic thing to I believe, at least in some places, more likely than an marriage lasting. But I disagree somewhat about anti-Intellectualism -- I think she especially did not like both books herself and even her husband's affection for them. TZ etc. and other shows will be studied one day like Pompei has been (not that TZ is probably not already revealing stuff that may not be readily found outside of such such shows. Lucy is another source; Honeymooners with its hideous kitchen sink also.)
    – releseabe
    Nov 22 at 16:30
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    @releseabe Bank teller was a responsible position that called for someone of impeccable character and presentable manners, but which was not very well paid. A teller could (and still can) aspire to a managerial position at a bank, but Bemis was no spring chicken and he was still a teller, evidently because he couldn't keep his mind on the job. His supervisor accords him no more respect than Mrs Bemis does. Nov 22 at 18:23
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    @InvisibleTrihedron: His age was very central: things forgivable (in others or oneself...) stop being so. In Bemis' case, the bomb was basically the only really good thing that could happen to him. I think that is pretty obvious in the story. I don't know if the idea was even that he would survive many weeks (radiation, etc.) but if I had been married to that woman, the weeks would be happy ones.
    – releseabe
    Nov 22 at 18:47
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    Fair enough - though I suspect that the words "Don't be a Jerk in England" are often used in "Welcome"
    – Andrew
    Nov 23 at 2:29

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