A Historian Looks at James Dean
by Vagn Hansen
The year is 1955. A revered general is in the White House. Members of a generation that suffered the privations of the Great Depression and the horrors of World War II are raising their own children in prosperity that would have been unimaginable to their parents. The Montgomery Bus Boycott has not yet begun; convention and material progress rule domestic life. Eisenhower and Bulganin meet in Geneva--the first U.S.-Soviet summit since World War II--and even the Cold War appears manageable.
Remarkably, Hollywood is home to a small number of bold producers and directors who probe beneath society's calm surface. Their films stimulate reflection on the status of the people who compose this society. James Dean--Indiana farm boy/bicoastal sophisticate--bursts into the consciousness of the nation with his performance in Elia Kazan's East of Eden. An American legend is born, and in a short time it is magnified by the star's death and posthumous film career.
How did James Dean become the symbol of youthful alienation in the Eisenhower decade? Who was he? American Legends Publishing has collected documents to help us answer the question for ourselves.
For film scholars, for Dean fans, for young people just beginning to explore the history of American popular culture, the Scrapbook provides the tools to understand the complex personality of one of the twentieth century's great actors.
The craft of historical research comes to life here. Public records (including court records and probate files) reveal much about the public figures who have meant so much to us. Requests filed under the Freedom of Information Act (with federal agencies) and requests filed under state public record disclosure statutes, bring to the surface previously hidden information. Original interviews with friends yield reflections on the lives of great people.
James Dean is a part of American culture. Enjoy the Scrapbook and learn about this icon of American life.
(Vagn Hansen teaches in North Carolina. He is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Tulane and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia. A longtime student of American popular culture, Professor Hansen wrote this essay as an introduction to The James Dean Scrapbook.)