Ed Driscoll

James Lileks: Deep Inside the Childhood-Industrial Complex

James Lileks often seems to luxuriate in the past, but I was still rather surprised when I spoke with him on the phone, to catch him standing outside his South Minneapolis home seemingly reliving a scene from 1964’s Dr. Strangelove. “Hold on a second—it appears we’re under nuclear attack” he tells me. “Hear that?” And indeed, even through the phone, I could hear sirens wailing. “It’s actually the monthly test of the local emergency sirens. But for dogs, this must be like hearing God!”

Even on my end of the connection, Jasper the dog’s howling and moaning cut through the siren and static, in a contrapuntal harmony with the siren not unlike the Gregorian modes of medieval monks. Or maybe Grace Slick of the early Jefferson Airplane.

“That’s Jasper”, Lileks says. “It’s like a homing beacon for dogs. The Great Wolf In The Sky is calling, and they just love it! It’s an ancient ancestral thing, he’s got his snout proudly in the air, and he’s pining away!”

Lileks returns inside, to his basement home office/home theater, the room the he’s dubbed “The Battle Bridge”, after the fortified auxiliary control room deep within the USS Enterprise on Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s where he writes his “Daily Bleat“, one of the most popular stops in the Blogosphere, and his now six-times a week “Daily Quirk“, his humor column for The Minneapolis Star-Tribune (or simply “Strib” for short), his weekly syndicated opinion column for Newhouse News, and his monthly column for the American Enterprise Magazine (where he serves as the magazine’s television critic).

It’s also where he wrote and scanned the images that appear in his latest book, Mommy Knows Worst. With the sounds of the sirens muffled, he’s ready to talk about it.

Exploring The Childhood-Industrial Complex

Mommy Knows Worst is the third title in a trilogy that includes The Gallery of Regrettable Food (2001) and Interior Desecrations (2004). Each of the three books combines Lileks’ wonderfully ironic captions with advertisements and other bygone ephemera, which, for the most part, look horrific to most baby boomers’ eyes.

Setting the stage for Mommy Knows Worst, Lileks says that by the middle of the 20th century, along with “the rise of mass culture and mass advertising, there were two forces always working on parents back then: those who wanted to tell them they were doing things wrong, and those who wanted to tell them what they were doing right. And there’s plenty to be made from both angles”, Lileks said, calling this segment of Eisenhower-era mass culture, “The Childhood-Industrial Complex”.

Lileks adds, “The early boomers were the first kids to really grow in a time when their parents were being bombarded by various messages in the media on how to raise a kid. So when those kids grew up, they look back and think, ‘Ahh, well, that explains it!” He also says his book will appeal to parents who actually raised kids during this period and can look back and chuckle, “‘What exactly were we thinking when we were so obsessed with constipation!’”

The C-word dominates the seventh chapter of Mommy Knows Worst, if only because it seemed to dominate childrearing magazine articles and advertising in the 1940s and ‘50s. “The bowels of America’s youth moved but once a month it seems back then”, Lileks wryly observes, “to judge from all of the ads and the tableaus of misery that beset families once constipation paid its awful visit.”

Loves “The Quality of the Lie” of Old Ads

All of which brings up an interesting question: just what is Lileks’ relationship with the past? The enormously popular “Institute of Official Cheer” portion of his Website has been described as “a sort of vicious attack on sentimental conceptions of the past” whose tone “is a heavy-handed irony and a sort of amused disgust at the crude commercialization of American pop culture.”

But in actuality, Lileks loves the past—especially the mid-20th century that his site focuses on—far more than that critic would have us believe.

“Yes, that’s the case”, he says. “And it’s not even a love/hate relationship. I think it’s perfectly possible to see all of this stuff for what it is. There’s a phrase that I keep using, which probably isn’t as good as I think it is. But what I admire about a lot of the advertising from my favorite period—the forties, the fifties, and the early sixties, before advertising had that seismic shift in the middle of the decade—I love the quality of the lie. I love the predicates; I love the assumptions. And there’s more cheer to it, there’s more optimism to it. There’s more human grace to it, even though by contemporary standards, it looks exceedingly crude and simplistic.”

But unlike the folks living in FDR or Ike’s America, aren’t we the first generation to look critically at media?

You can hear the italics in Lileks’ voice when he says, “Please. A housewife in 1952 who looked at a Tide ad in which a woman in a pinafore is literally clicking her heels over the fact that she’s got whiter whites? I’m pretty sure that moms rolled their eyes at that, and didn’t think, ‘gee, I’m not clicking my heels; what’s wrong with me?’ They may have liked the idea of whiter whites, but the idea that they should express this amount of enthusiasm? No, no.

“There’s something’s about the culture that you can detect in the ads that I like. I’m not going to romanticize it—but I’m not going to disparage it, simply because it doesn’t have all the grownup sophisticated notions that we do.”

On Craft

While Lileks’ craft has been honed over years of writing for several newspapers (including the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, where he’s long hung his hat and prior to that, The Washington Post), in addition to the seven books he’s written (with another due out next year), he says that much of his writing—particularly his Bleats and “The Quirk”, his Strib column are usually composed very quickly. “I write what I write, and I don’t rewrite”, he says. “I guess I don’t think of having any particular style; it’s just what comes out when I sit down. And I don’t agonize over it, which is probably for both the better and the worse.”Mommy Knows Worst took me two weeks to write. It took me a long time to scan the images; probably five times as long to scan it, and separate out all the stuff than it did to actually write the damn thing.”

Will Future Generations Satirize This Decade?

Lileks’ Interior Desecrations book skewered with surgical precision the mindset that led to the brown corduroy bellbottom “stuck on stupid” 1970s. Does he think that when we look back in the rearview mirror at “the naughts”, this first decade of the new millennium, it will be viewed with as much horror as we regard the 1970s?

With mass culture and mass media now fractured (not the least of which was via the Internet and the Blogosphere), Lileks wonders if there’s enough of any common culture left to allow for such retrospective japery, “other than making fun of the fact that we really lack a common culture”, he says.

“In one respect, I like this”, he understandably adds. “I like the fact that there are so many culture opportunities out there, that the monoculture no longer charges the whole show. But the death of the monoculture means that there is a less of a sense of common identity, and how that plays out is something that we are going to learn in the next ten to 15 years.

“And again, that’s coming from a guy who just wrote a picture book with snarky captions. Take that as you will!”

Earlier: My review of Lileks’ previous book, Interior Desecrations, from last year at Electronic House magazine.

(Cross-posted at PJMedia.com)