Land of Plenty (GE PR, '52)

LAND OF PLENTY: A Story of Freedom and Power
Adventure Series prepared for General Electric by Pictorial Media, Inc.1952.
The splash panel shows four kids – two boys, two girls, somewhere between eleven and thirteen – overlooking a valley full of fields, rivers, distant cities, and especially powerlines. (Well, this is a GE book.)
Opening caption: "The two powerful forces that have given shape and form to America's greatness were born almost two centuries ago... but the 'chain reaction' they set off is building a better world today... and promises an even greater future for us all!" So let's see how the future used to be...
Next page, top two-thirds is one panel showing two of the kids creeping towards a barbed-wire fence. The boy is even carrying an old-fashioned bindle, like Dennis the Menace when he ran away from home. Only it's a little more serious for these two, they're trying to get across "the very edge of the 'Iron Curtain.'"
They make it through and hail two guards on the other side. "Oh, Karl, we made it. We're safe!"
"Hold it, Joe, they're just a couple of kids!"
Cut to an American classroom. The teacher says, "And so these two young people, Karl and Marya, risked everything – even their lives – to come to America. That's why we should make them welcome – help them become good friends and good citizens." In the class are the other boy and girl from the cover, Jane Jackson and Johnny Powers. They spend the rest of the page showing Karl and Marya such American landmarks as the soda fountain, the gridiron and the roller rink.
Then, on the next page, we start to get down to cases.
JOHNNY: "You're wrong, Karl. It's not because Americans are so different from other people, it's because of our location."
JANE: "I think it's because of natural resources – you know, coal and iron and stuff – Oh look, here comes my brother Ed! Let's ask him... Ed – Karl was saying we live better here than people do any place else in the world – because Americans are SMARTER..."
JOHNNY: "And Jane says it's because we have BETTER NATURAL RESOURCES."
KARL: "And Johnny thinks –"
"Wait a minute," says Ed (who looks to be in his 20's). He offers to relocate the debate to the Sugar Bowl, his treat. Once everyone's settled, he goes on: "Actually, you're ALL wrong. It isn't smartness or natural resources or good location. Other countries have those things, too. The fact is, what really makes America such a wonderful place to live in is all around us... Everyday in almost everything we see and do! I'll tell you what, keep your eyes and ears open the next few days... See if you can find the answer yourselves."
Naturally, the kids are thrilled to get an extra homework assignment. They pair up according to nationality. "And so the search begins. Perhaps you can find the answer before they can... just by seeing what they see..." As long as they can't see the first page, you should be all right.
Ed drops his car off to be serviced. "Golly," says Johnny to the mechanic, "You have a wonderful garage here, sir! Need a helper on Saturdays?"
"Well, Johnny, I've got enough tools and machines to do the work of a DOZEN helpers. But maybe we can work something out. Your brother's car will be greased by four o'clock... let's talk about it then." (Hey, I thought Ed was Jane's brother!)
Johnny and Jane hurry to her house for lunch. Luckily, they live in a town with efficient and convenient mass transit. (Not so luckily, my particular copy is covered at this point with ballpoint doodles.)
Jane: "I bet you like driving this new [electric] trolley coach, don't you, Mr. Carson?"
Mr. Carson: "You bet I do, Jane! I've got lots of pep and power under my foot here. We'll have you home in no time." (Okay, he's way too cheerful; you just know he's selling something. Of course, nowadays we'd be nervous that he knows the name and address of an underage girl on his route.)
On arrival, Jane calls out, "Here we are, Mother. Need any help?"
Mom, vacuuming, says, "No, thank you, Jane. This is so easy." (Okay, when was the last time you heard anyone, male or female, say housework was "so easy"? By 1962 we'd be listening to Jane Jetson b*tch about all the buttons she has to push. It's not the ten-year gap, it's the gap between entertainment and "education.")
Mother shoos Johnny and Jane out of her gleaming white kitchen before they spoil their appetites.
Johnny mulls over what he's seen so far and after lunch takes Jane to the Electric Company downtown. They see, not Fargo North, Decoder, but an exhibit on "How We Lived 50 Years Ago." There are pictures of a old wash basin, a horse-drawn trolley, an ice house and "Kelly's Repair Shop," with Kelly himself on anvil and sledge.
Johnny: "We've got enough clues, Jane! Let's go find Ed!"
Now we shift to Karl and Marya's house. The family has had some wonderful news: Father (who looks like Lech Walesa) has just made foreman! "Oh, I'm glad, Jan!" says their mother (who looks like Ma Kent). "Hear, children, now I am MRS. Foreman!" (Only if they grill you...)
According to Jan, "it was so quick... so simple! The boss, he says to me, 'Jan, your work has been fine. From now – you'll be foreman.' And I say, 'But, Sir, I'm from the other side – I don't speak so good the English,' and the boss, he interrupts, 'That makes no difference, Jan... You've EARNED the job, that's what counts!'" (See, in America, we promote on merit! – When did that change?)
And by the way, weren't Karl and Marya lucky to be living with their birth parents? That wasn't the case for many refugees. Of course, Jan and his Mrs. might've gone through the barbed wire an hour ahead of the kids. Or they could've met up in America; we discover that there's a family connection in town. Mom tells Karl and Marya to get food at the supermarket for a celebratory dinner – and "Get Uncle Vanya to share the good news."
Get WHO now?
Uncle Vanya, of course, is a play be Anton Chekov. Karl and Marya's uncle might be called "Vanya" for a number of reasons:
1) The writer was lazy, and couldn't make "Sam," "Tom" or "Scrooge" work.2) The writer was winking at the few adults who picked this up. "See, you can't tell by this script, but I actually AM literate."3) For whatever reason the writer is being coy about Karl and Marya's homeland, calling it "the old country" and "behind the Iron Curtain." Naming a minor character after piece of Russian literature could be a clue to the discerning reader. A "dog-whistle," if you will. (You Laika?)
Karl and Marya have made it to the supermarket. "Let's go, slowpoke, Can't you make up your mind?"
"There are so many kinds to choose from, Karl! Each a little different in size or flavor or price. You can buy exactly the kind you want – as though it was made especially for you. Why, I feel like a QUEEN!" See, kids, you've got it good here in America! You're spoiled for choice! (That's maybe half right...)
Next page we meet Uncle V. hisself. He sports a luxurious 'tache that looks like smart quotes. "You deserved it, Jan... but you are lucky to live in a country where you can get what you earn!" (Wish I did...)
"And your newspaper, Vanya, is it a success?" asks Ma. "I remember when you started it with all your savings... you said that here in America, you could print the truth." (That's still true: here in America, you CAN print the truth. You just can't sell it.)
"Yes, it goes well. There are many people from  the old country who want to read the truth in their own language." And then Uncle Vanya makes his farewells and leaves to drop his mustache off at "Girls With Slingshots."
Karl says he's got the answer. "Perhaps you were too young to remember, Marya..." (aren't they the same age?) "...but in the old country things were so different. I remember...
"In the old country, people can do so little. Whatever you try –
"You cannot get ahead by good work alone." (Apparatchik: "It's not a matter of what you deserve... It's a matter of membership in the party. Andrei gets the promotion.")
"You cannot pick and choose, because there is only the GOVERNMENT brand." (Housewife in headscarf looks at market shelf with five lonely items.)
"You cannot go into your own business – or speak the truth in public..." (Jackbooted thugs destroy a printing press while a helpless family looks on.)
So both teams think they have the answer. They assemble on Ed's patio, and divulge.
Karl and Marya's answer is "FREEDOM": "Freedom in America is everywhere: not only freedom FROM bad things but freedom FOR good things. Freedom to work where you like and to change to a better job, like my father just did. Freedom to save your money and to risk it in any business you want to, like Uncle Vanya. Freedom to choose among all the wonderful things to buy, to spend your money as you wish... like Marya in the supermarket. It is this freedom to do good things which makes each of us GIVE our best and GET the most!"
Johnny and Jane=20pick, "POWER." (I'm sure Johnny's last name had nothing to do with it.) "Electric power makes our homes brighter, easier to take care of, like Jane's Mother's home. It's power that helps every worker get more done, like the machines and hoists and electric tools in Mister Kelly's garage. And electric power carries us where we want to go... swiftly, quietly, comfortably... like the trolly coach (and just about all transportation)." (Johnny, your next assignment is to watch "Who Killed The Electric Car?")
Johnny goes on, "Here in America, power helps us GET MORE DONE... so that we can EARN MORE... So that we can BUY MORE of the good things that power has helped us to produce... And so that we can ENJOY MORE of the leisure time that power has made possible." (There's at least one major disconnect here, but I'll cover it later.)
Ed judges, "Well, you're both right... the answer is freedom AND power. [Just like in the subtitle!] You saw it from different angles because people from other parts of the world – like Karl and Marya – are most impressed by the many FREEDOMS they find in America, but people born in America – like Johnny and Jane20– sometimes take freedoms for granted... and are most impressed by the POWER that surrounds us and serves us."
Now Ed puts on his historian's hat and gives the kids a quick overview of the history of America. He touches on the Pilgrims, Franklin's lightning rod, the "shot heard 'round the world," the Declaration of Independence, Yorktown, the Constitution, and the Western Migration. But he doesn't say anything about the Native Americans – well, this IS supposed to be a story about Freedom. And when he talks about the farmers – "At first, they had only the muscle power of animals to help them. Later, they used the power of the waterwheel and the steam engine." He doesn't say anything about indentured servitude. (I suppose I need not mention that there isn't a black face in the whole book?)
Now Ed traces the rise of electric power, from Edison's bulb to today's modern appliances.
"Freedom and power worked together," says Ed, "each helping the other to build, and we grew into a great nation. But time and again, America's power had to be used to defend its freedom..." In one panel we get three scenes of warfare, marked simply "1918" (WWI – trench fighting), "1941" (WWII and what looks like the Normandy landing in a space two-by-three-quarter inches) and "1952" (Fighter jets over (presumably) Korea). I should point out that the scriptwriter is lumping several kinds of power together: electrical, economic, manufacturing, and military. In many instances we'd say "energy" or "technology" today.
"Today, America is producing not only to defend its hard-won freedoms, but to give us all a better life... Thanks to the 'invisible helpers' behind every American production man." We see  a line of American production men in overalls, each one followed by many partial outlines of himself. It's meant to suggest the "invisible helpers," but it looks like they're vibrating like the Flash. Over this scene floats the legend, "Electric Power equal to the power of 150 men, is working for every man in industry." Well, no. It's working for the boss of these men (and women, too). This is the major disconnect I mentioned earlier; increased production does not, and DID not, result in increased wages. (They were worried about automation back in the Fifties. They were right.)
Ed brings it home: "Now you know why freedom and power go together... why both have made today's good life possible... and promise an even better life tomorrow!" He poses before a cityscape that looks like a really neat Lionel Train setup: "This growing power of ours is daily adding to our freedoms... through better health, better education, better communication, better transportation, better living in our homes. [And gardens?] Our electric power is giving us better income with shorter working hours [ahem], so that we can buy more of the good things we produce, and have more leisure time to enjoy them! If we preserve those freedoms of ours – and strengthen our power – who knows what wonders the future may bring?"
Who knows, indeed? For Ed, Johnny, Jane, Karl and Marya, the future meant unparalleled prosperity, for about ten or twelve years. Pollution, social upheaval, Vietnam, Watergate lie in wait for a somnolent Middle America that's about to cry havoc over Beatlemania.
LAND OF PLENTY is, of course, pure, undiluted propaganda, ammunition for the then-raging Cold War. Although so many of its attitudes are out of sync with contemporary culture, it's hard not to feel nostalgic for the fat and happy Fifties. Back then, we were gonna die from the Bomb. Then in the Eighties we were gonna die from AIDS. Now it's a new century and we're gonna die from Climate Change.
I can hardly wait to see what's gonna kill us next.