Planting the Seeds of the Sixties
September 6, 2009
The Year Everything Changed
By Fred Kaplan
Wiley. 322 pp. $27.95
In the pantheon of pivotal years -- 1815 (the Congress of Vienna),
1865 (Lincoln is assassinated, the Civil War ends), 1914 (World War I
begins), 1945 (World War II ends) and 1968 (the Tet Offensive in
Vietnam, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy are assassinated) --
1959 hasn't previously rated a mention. But Fred Kaplan's energetic
and engaging new book makes a convincing case for its importance.
Because it set the scene for the explosions of the 1960s, 1959
deserves special attention as a turning point in American history.
Kaplan has a PhD in political science and writes about international
relations for Slate, but he says he's spent more time writing about
"music and movies" than he has about "politics and war," and the
breadth of his knowledge and enthusiasms is evident throughout
"1959." "It occurred to me that some of . . . my favorite books,
movies and record albums were made in 1959," he writes. "The more I
looked into it the more it struck me that this truly was a pivotal
year. . . . In that sense this is a revisionist history of previously
The book includes mini-essays on topics from Miles Davis's "Kind of
Blue" to Herman Kahn's marathon lecture series on thermonuclear war
(which helped inspire Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" a few years
later), the invention of the integrated circuit (which made the
personal computer revolution possible), the lawsuit by Grove Press
that led to the publication of an unexpurgated "Lady Chatterley's
Lover," Nikita Khrushchev's visit to America, Robert Frank's
photographs and John Kennedy's preparations for his presidential
campaign in 1960.
Kaplan is particularly good at describing the impact of the beat
movement led by Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, who set off an
underground revolt against the conformity that suffused American life
in the 1950s. The author uses Ginsberg's return to Columbia
University for a poetry reading in the winter of 1959 to highlight
the cultural shifts that would transform the country just a few years
later. Ginsberg and Kerouac had met at Columbia as undergraduates in
1944, and Ginsberg had been a favorite student of Lionel Trilling,
who was one of the most celebrated critics of his time. (Kaplan
doesn't mention it, but Trilling was also the first Jew to become a
tenured professor at Columbia.)
Ginsberg's flamboyance was the antithesis of Trilling's moderation.
Yet the work of the beats animated Trilling's private doubts about
his own quiet posture. Kaplan notes that Trilling's wife, Diana,
wondered whether any of her husband's friends realized "how deeply he
scorned the very qualities of character -- his quiet, his moderation,
his gentle reasonableness -- for which he was most admired in his
lifetime and which have been most celebrated since his death." When
Ginsberg made his triumphant return to his alma mater in 1959, Lionel
Trilling stayed home to discuss forming an intellectuals' book club
with W.H. Auden and others. But Diana Trilling went to the reading
with a friend, and she was surprised by her own reaction to it. "I
was much moved by" Ginsberg's "Lion in the Room," Diana wrote. "It
was . . . a decent poem, and I am willing to admit this surprised
me." But when she went home and expressed her admiration, she got the
kind of reaction that would continuously split the generations in the
coming decade: "I'm ashamed of you," Auden told her.
Kaplan points out the synergy among all kinds of '50s
revolutionaries. Thus a comic such as Lenny Bruce, who "uncorked
elaborate monologues about sex, drugs, religion and politics," could
have his "improvisations" likened to those of Charlie Parker and John
Coltrane by jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason. A chapter titled "The End
of Obscenity" reminds us just how different America was a
half-century ago, when such crusading publishers as Barney Rosset of
Grove Press had to wage court battles to get "Lady Chatterley" and
the novels of Henry Miller published on this side of the Atlantic.
Rosset viewed his press as "a valve for pressurized cultural
energies, a breach in the dam of American Puritanism -- a
whip-lashing live cable of Zeitgeist."
As Rosset was fighting to publish "Lady Chatterley," a film
distribution company was waging a simultaneous battle to overturn the
New York Board of Regents' ban of a French film based on D.H.
Lawrence's novel. When the U.S. Supreme Court reversed that ban in
1959, the opinion written by Justice Potter Stewart greatly enlarged
the scope of what the American public would be allowed to see and
read. Stewart declared that the Constitution's "guarantee is not
confined to the expression of ideas that are conventional or shared
by a majority. It protects advocacy of the opinion that adultery may
sometimes be proper, no less than advocacy of socialism or the single tax."
Anyone old enough to remember the '50s will be astonished to discover
how many revolutionary seeds were sewn in the final year of that
decade. Others who read "1959" will get a compelling and concise
lesson in American social, cultural and political history.
Charles Kaiser is the author of "1968 in America" and "The Gay Metropolis."
1959: A rocket, a pill and obscenity start a revolution
By Joseph A. Cannon
Aug. 30, 2009
In the summer of 1959, our family moved from Salt Lake City to the
San Fernando Valley, then a relatively sleepy, smogless suburb of Los
Angeles. L.A. was a big vibrant city with, even then, the glitz of
Hollywood. Yet it was a city full of optimism and more than the
veneer of innocence.
The Brooklyn Dodgers became the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1958 and
promptly beat the Chicago White Sox to claim the 1959 World Series.
"Bonanza" hit our TV screens in 1959, and other popular TV shows of
that year included "The Donna Reed Show," "Perry Mason," "Howdy
Doody," "Father Knows Best" and the now iconic pre-revolution series
"Leave it to Beaver."
Now comes Slate columnist, Fred Kaplan, with a new book, "1959, The
Year Everything Changed." Though it overstates (Can one year really
be the pivot point for a whole cultural change?), Kaplan shows that
many of the seeds of what became the '60s sprouted in 1959.
In his first chapter, Breaking the Chains, Kaplan notes that on Jan.
2, 1959, a Soviet rocket carrying the Lunik I space capsule blasted
past Earth's orbit and became the first man-made object to revolve
around the sun. "The flight of the Lunik set off a year when chains
of all sorts were broken with verve and apprehension not just in
the cosmos, but in politics, society, culture, science and sex. A
feeling took hold that the breakdown of barriers in space, speed, and
time made other barriers ripe for transgressing."
One of the important pillars of his long rumination on the year 1959
is Kaplan's focus on the literary scene of that year and in
particular, challenges to the literary establishment and to obscenity
standards. There are a number of manifestations of the assault on
then-settled sensibilities. While Norman Mailer had been publishing
for more than a decade, it was in 1959 that he embarked on a new kind
of book, "Advertisements for Myself," which reflected a new kind of
writing. In "Advertisements," Mailer would, throughout the book,
"interrupt the narrative, recount how he came to write the piece,
what was on his mind and how he felt at the time, (and offer) the
most blistering judgments of others." The book marked the beginning
of "two literary genres that would transform American writing through
the rest of the century: the confessional memoir and the New Journalism."
1959 also brought the resurgence of Alan Ginsberg and his friend Jack
Kerouac. Ginsberg and Kerouac were initially rejected but later
embraced by the literary establishment. In earlier years, they had
been dubbed the leaders of the "beat generation." By 1959, the beat
generation had been transformed into beatniks.
Much of the assault on literary standards was fought in the courts.
In the late '50s and into 1959, Ginsberg's "Howl and Other Poems" was
declared obscene by customs officials. In early 1959, an unpublished
novel by William Burroughs was seized by the postmaster general and
declared obscene. Eventually D. H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's
Lover" found its way into court. All these were tests of a 1957
Supreme Court decision defining obscenity. By mid-July a federal
court ruled that "Lady Chatterley's Lover" was not obscene. While
this was not the end of obscenity cases, it clearly broke the back of
obscenity prosecutions. Kaplan notes, "there was an appetite for
forbidden fruit, wherever it was growing and an audience for anyone
who spat its seeds in the faces of authority." If all this wasn't
enough, Lenny Bruce made his first appearance on television in April
1959 on the Steve Allen Show.
Then came The Pill. On July 23, 1959, G. D. Searle Pharmaceuticals
filed an application with the FDA requesting permission to market the
drug Enovid, explicitly as a birth-control pill. The availability of
the pill was directly responsible for the dramatic decline of the
American birth rate in the 1960s. But more than its demographic
significance were the social consequences. Shortly after the pill was
approved, Gloria Steinem would write in Esquire magazine, "The Moral
Disarmament of Betty Co-ed," in which she predicted that the pill
would sire a new breed of "autonomous girls" who, like men, would be
"free to take sex, education, work, and even marriage when and how they like."
Next week: More on the '50s and '60s.
Joseph A. Cannon is editor of the Deseret News. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org