Elvis Family Lived in One Room, Shared Loo: Lewis Lapham

'American Empire: 1945-2000'
"American Empire: The Rise of a Global Power, the Democratic Revolution at Home 1945-2000," by Joshua B. Freeman. Source: Penguin Group via Bloomberg

In 1948, when Elvis Presley was 13, his family moved from Tupelo, Mississippi, to Memphis, Tennessee. His father got a job as at a munitions factory, while his mother worked as a sewing-machine operator.

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Still, the family could afford to rent only a single room in a boardinghouse, where they shared the bathroom with others. Meals were cooked entirely on a hotplate. Heading to downtown Beale Street, Elvis would yearn for the cool outfits displayed in the windows of Lansky Brothers.

The Presleys were typical of the period’s blue-collar class. World War II had brought some prosperity to the rank and file, but the average steelworker family moved above the federally defined poverty line only in 1953.

To counter management efforts to roll back worker gains after the war, labor unions ordered numerous strikes. Businesses fought back by launching campaigns that equated any infringement on the market as a move toward tyranny.

I spoke with Joshua Freeman, author of “American Empire: 1945-2000,” on the following topics:

1. Military Might

2. Expansion of Rights

3. Predatory Capitalism

4. Cultural Costs of Security

5. U.S. Decline

To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

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