"Incredible Accomplishments of Our Day": The Cold War
The impact of a Cold War context on the culture of the 1950s cannot be understated. The consciousness of the possibility of both nuclear annihilation and also totalitarian subversion created a climate of emotional and psychological unease. O’Connor captured this attitude in letter to a friend who lived in Los Alamos, New Mexico, the site of the development of the first nuclear weapons. She asked, “Was Los Alamos a place before the bomb? […] I should think you would have definite sensations of living in a place completely Post Bomb” (HB 18). Jon Bacon employs this phrase to describe all of 1950’s America as a land “that was Post Bomb” (Bacon 4).

The paranoia of the post bomb culture found political expression in the House Un-American Activities Committee and the person of Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy initiated and oversaw Senate investigations into the various members of government, entertainment and news media, and society whom he and others accused of harboring Communist sympathies and aiding Communist subversion of American culture. Six million citizens were investigated before McCarthy was finally condemned by the Senate and stripped of investigatory power (Young 14-17).

The paranoia the allowed McCarthy to operate also found expression in a wide array of cultural materials depicting America under the threat of invasion and destruction. Film saw a frequent depictions of invasion, both explicitly Communist and also allegorically, through science fiction, where monsters or other creatures acted as stands in for the “Red Menace.” The film Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is among the best of these. Invasion depicts the gradual take-over of a small, isolated town by “pods” that produce physical copies of the actual residents who themselves disappear and are presumably killed. The replacements are subtly different than their originals, acting collectively toward the goal of the eventual take-over of the planet.

In the concluding scenes of the film, Dr. Bennell, played by Kevin McCarthy, the only survivor of the pod invasion runs through the streets desperately seeking to warn an indifferent public. The film reaches its emotional peak here, but a final ending scene reassures the audience that the authorities will become aware of the threat and deal with it. The film captures the emotional tenor of Cold War paranoia: there is a hidden threat subtly undermining the American way of life, and the only way to stop it is to create a culture-wide awareness, an awakening to the need to defend American culture.

Bacon labels this scenario, and others similar to it, examples of a new genre emergent from Cold War paranoia, that of the “Invaded Pastoral”; it was a particularly effective narrative because “the agrarian setting had tremendous symbolic value […] as a synecdoche for the United States. Rural life […] was identified with the American way of life” (7-8). This idea, of the symbolic importance of the agrarian in American intellectual life, was a major thesis of the early practitioners of American Studies, the scholars of the “Myth and Symbol” school.

Henry Nash Smith, whose Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth was first published in 1950, formulated, in that work, the idea of “myth and symbol” as “[collective] intellectual construction that fuses concept and emotion into and image” (Smith v). The “myth of the garden” which Bacon sees as the source of the “Invaded Pastoral”:

embraced a cluster of metaphors expressing fecundity, growth, increase and blissful labor in the earth, all centering about the heroic figure of the idealized farmer [… the myth] affirmed that the dominant force in the future society of the Mississippi Valley would be agriculture. (Smith 138-139)
Though technology and other forces early on aborted this collective yearning, the “group memory” remained a powerful social force. One of the major arguments now leveled against the Myth and Symbol scholars is that the assumption of an “American consciousness”, a “group memory”, is itself a myth which necessarily excludes major portions of a diverse population. Nonetheless, for the dominant, commercial, cultural mode of 1950s America it is apparent that the “symbol” of the garden did indeed have resonance.

Bacon rightly points out that O’Connor’s almost constant narrative depicts an invasion of the agrarian, or at least rural. Her vision is distinct from the commercial mass-cultural embodiments of the invasion scenario, most obviously in O’Connor’s refusal to depict a cheerful conclusion. Invasion of the Body Snatchers and other such productions end with a defeat of the invader if not, as in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), with “paradise regained” (Bacon 13). O’Connor’s narrative ends frequently with the death of the landholder, and always with the original mode of life “permanently compromised” (12).

However, Bacon’s assertion that O’Connor’s use of the alteration of the invasion narrative is solely, or primarily, an undermining of the “simple moral dualism” of Cold War politics, does not go far enough. As we shall see, O’Connor’s narratives of cultural condemnation do indeed react to the immediate circumstances of the Cold War, but also extend into a more metaphysical argument involving a wider conflict with all forms of cultural modernity.