Present at the Creation

Dean Acheson, who was the second Secretary of State under Harry Truman (George Marshall of Marshall Plan fame was the first), wrote a book called Present at the Creation in which he describes how, in the aftermath of World War II, one world order crumbled and a new one, largely defined by the Cold War, came into being. This year NPR has been using that same phrase,

Present at the Creation, to define its collection of reports on the origins of American cultural icons. It’s a great series. I have no idea how they chose the subjects, which run the gamut from the electric guitar to the Lincoln Memorial, but just about every one of them is a nifty little vignette of American cultural history.

For instance, the movie Animal House effectively defined much of what is now expected in the American university experience. It simply isn’t possible to consider your college education complete without having attended a toga party, all because of this movie. That kind of cultural impact represents real power. Who were the people behind it? Doug Kenney, a founder of National Lampoon magazine, was the primary writer of Animal House. The more you read about him, the more you realize that he was one of the most influential people in creating the modern ethos of cynically hip irony, the world view inherited by Jerry Seinfeld and David Letterman. As someone who presided over the downfall of one world view (a clean-cut, naive, Kingston Trio kind of world view) and the rise of another (Animal House, Saturday Night Live), Kenney is certainly worthy of being profiled in series called Present at the Creation. It’s only too bad Kenney didn’t live to tell his version of the story the way Dean Acheson did.

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