I've been writing about culture and the arts, especially music and movies, for much of my life--for longer than I've been writing about politics and war--and several years ago, it occurred to me that some of the most important--or at least some of my favorite--books, movies, and record albums were made in 1959. Was this just coincidence, or was there something significant about that year? The more I looked into it, the more it struck me that this truly was a pivotal year--not only in culture, but also in politics, society, race, science, sex: everything. In that sense, this is a revisionist history of previously unnoticed linkages and, in some cases, forgotten events.
If a man could fall in love with a year, court it, tease out all its darkest secrets and hidden depths, find a harmony in all its disparate events, and write of its intrinsic fascination, that man would be Fred Kaplan and that year would be 1959.
And honestly, who'd have guessed? Not yet the tumultuous and obviously interesting 60's, nor the dangerous and daring war years of the preceding 40's, the tail end of one of the blandest-seeming, conformist decades in history would not immediately leap to mind as the premier candidate for Most Captivating Year Evah. But under Kaplan's keen eye for spotting cultural connections and his solid prose analysis, 1959 positively blooms with quirkiness and momentousness at every turn.
Consider, for example, just a handful of events: Castro takes power in Cuba, Berry Gordy borrows money to start Motown records, Miles Davis records Kind of Blue, Texas Instruments announces the invention of something it calls the "microchip," Philip Roth publishes Goodbye, Columbus, the Guggenheim opens, the Datsun and the Toyota make their debut at the International Auto Show, the first two U.S. soldiers are killed in Vietnam, both Khrushchev and Castro visit the United States, Lady Chatterley's Lover at long last wins a court battle for publication and G.D. Searle applies to the FDA for approval of ... the birth control pill.
And those are just a few of the more measurable, official achievements of the year. Kaplan touches on all these, but where he really shines is in his ability to capture longer-term trends in the snapshot of the year. The author is probably best known to Daily Kos readers as the "War Stories" columnist for Slate and the author of Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power, but he's also a jazz critic for Stereophile, and his appreciation of the cultural significance of the emerging convergence of jazz, Motown and nascent rock and roll, tied in with the bleakness of the decade and the fear of nuclear annihilation, is illuminating throughout. "It was," he writes, "this twin precipice-the prospect of infinite possibilities and instant annihilation, both teetering on the edge of a new decade--that gave 1959 its distinctive swoon and ignited its creative energy."
This creative energy is scientific--as the space program gets underway and America's love affair with all types of gadgetry and technology shifts into high gear--but it's also artistic as well. Besides the music scene, he explores the first cutting-edge political humorists like Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, and (of course) the Beat writers: Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and their messy, spontaneous, roustabout lives and creations. From the mainstream outside, these rebels made barely a ripple at the time. But as Kaplan makes clear, "There was an appetite for forbidden fruit, where it was growing--and an audience for anyone who spit its seeds in the face of authority."
In Kaplan's careful interpretation of the year, 1959--even aside from its headline scientific and cultural milestones--was a simmering cauldron of innovation and change, with superficial conformity and false shallows hiding the depths beneath. The non-headline-grabbing shifts were beneath the surface, but even more than the current events of the day, they shaped the future we live in now. John Kennedy was readying for a presidential run, honing his message and building up his network in the year prior to his run. Martin Luther King Jr. made a trip to India and studied in depth the resistance methods of Mahatma Gandhi. In different states, court rulings were made regarding voting rights and desegregation that laid the groundwork for the civil rights struggles that would explode into the mainstream in a few short years.
Kaplan argues convincingly at the opening of the book that this pregnant pause of a year began its undercurrent of transformation in outer space before the psychic and cultural effects were acknowledged and understood:
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.
1959 was the year when shockwaves of the new ripped the seams of daily life, when humanity stepped into the cosmos and also commandeered the conception of human life, when the world shrank but the knowledge needed to thrive in it expanded exponentially, when outsiders became insiders, when categories were crossed and taboos were trampled, when everything was changing and everyone knew it--when the world as we now know it began to take form.
Organizing an overview of a select time period, with all its constituent and interwoven subject areas, is never easy. Kaplan, however, makes it look like a lark. He opens with science and the Cold War, with the politics of the superpower stand-off and the knowledge in their countries of the nuclear capability for annihilation. Against this backdrop, he moves on to journalism and culture--the two meeting in "hipster" firebrand Norman Mailer--and he examines the emergence of more personal storytelling in the formerly objective sphere of reporting, and how that shaped what citizens knew, and how they thought about and felt current events. From there he moves smoothly on to the Beat writers and court cases of censorship, then to the stand-up comedians and then onward to an examination of physicist Herman Kahn, who toured the country in a barnstorming lecture circuit preaching an odd mixture of nihilism and cheerfulness about the inevitability of at least partial (regional) nuclear annihilation.
All these convergences are explored and, as Kaplan writes, were crucial in setting the stage for the next era:
By the end of 1959, all the elements were in place for the upheavals of the subsequent decades.
Above all, there was suddenly a palpable sense--brought on by jet travel, space exploration, and the shift from nuclear domination to a competitive arms race--that the world was shrinking and that America was part of that world, locked into it, no longer merely affecting events but also affected by them, with consequences that expanded the nation's horizons but also heightened its vulnerability.
This sprawling, holistic joy of a book explores, expands and provokes reassessment of an entire era--not just a year--in a way that is deeply satisfying and enlightening. Social, political and historical commentary doesn't get much better than this, and it qualifies as a terrific summer read: easy to read because of the polished style, but delivering some meaty subject matter along the way.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.