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1959: A Year When Everything Changed

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By George F. Will
Sunday, July 19, 2009

Fifty years ago, on July 21, 1959, Grove Press won permission to publish D.H. Lawrence's novel "Lady Chatterley's Lover." Two days later, G.D. Searle, the pharmaceutical company, sought government approval for Enovid, the birth control pill. These two events, both welcome, were, however, pebbles that presaged the avalanche that swept away America's culture of restraint and reticence.

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That change is recounted by Fred Kaplan, an MIT PhD and cultural historian, in "1959: The Year Everything Changed," an intelligent book with a silly subtitle. There never has been a year -- or a decade, century or even millennium, for that matter -- in which everything changed. There are numerous constants in the human condition, including (and because of) human nature. Furthermore, pick a year, any year, in the past, say, 250, and you will find it pregnant with consequential births and battles, inventions and publications that made modernity.

Besides, one reason America got into so many messes after Sept. 11, 2001, was the disorienting mantra that on that day "everything changed." Still, consider how much 1959 did incubate.

Until into the 1940s, it had been a crime in Massachusetts to sell Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy," in which Roberta loses her innocence to a factory foreman. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a New York court's judgment against Doubleday for publishing Edmund Wilson's novel "Memoirs of Hecate County," which depicted an extramarital affair. In 1957, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of a bookseller for mailing obscene materials, saying that constitutional protection of free speech did not extend to obscenity, as determined by the Department of the Post Office, which had its own judiciary.

The court said, however, that the test of obscenity was "whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to prurient interest." And to be obscene, material must be "utterly without redeeming social importance."

So, would Lawrence's novel be judged both prurient and worthless? Barney Rosset of Grove decided to find out by alerting the post office of his intention to import some copies from Europe. The post office impounded them. Then a court abolished restraints on sending them through the mail. Within weeks the novel was a bestseller, as was Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita." Four months after the United States slipped the leash of Earth's gravity by putting a satellite into orbit around the sun, social restraints, too, were being shed.

In July 1959, Searle sought approval from the Food and Drug Administration approval to market Enovid for birth control -- not, as in 1957, to treat "menstrual disorders." When finally the pill reached the market, U.S. News & World Report wondered whether it would be considered "a license for promiscuity" and "lead to sexual anarchy." The very idea of "community standards," the crux of the Chatterley decision, was becoming problematic.

Kaplan lavishes excessive attention on Norman Mailer, who today seems marginal. It is a significant datum -- signifying today's diminished importance of words -- that the poet Allen Ginsberg's 1959 recitation at Columbia University caused the sort of commotion that only a rock group could cause today. But Kaplan's judgment that Ginsberg "saw the connection between freedom from structures in poetry and freedom from structures in all of life" merely validates the axiom that everything changes except the avant garde.

More serious change was coming, born of a mundane material, silicon. On March 24, 1959, at an engineers' trade show, Texas Instruments introduced perhaps the 20th century's most transformative device, the solid integrated circuit, aka the microchip. It would help satisfy what Kaplan calls Americans' "yearning for instantaneity," a cousin of the spontaneity ("first thought, best thought," proclaimed Ginsberg) so celebrated in the next decade.

Kaplan is especially convincing concerning jazz as a leading indicator of more serious, because more disciplined, cultural enrichment. On March 2, 1959, Miles Davis began recording "Kind of Blue," perhaps the greatest jazz album. On May 4, John Coltrane recorded "Giant Steps"; on May 22, Ornette Coleman recorded "The Shape of Jazz to Come"; and on June 25, Dave Brubeck began recording "Time Out." The emancipation of jazz from what Kaplan calls "the structures of chords and pre-set rhythms" proved that meticulously practiced improvisation is not an oxymoron.

On July 8, 1959 -- two months after President Dwight Eisenhower authorized U.S. military advisers to accompany South Vietnamese units on operations -- in a hut 20 miles from Saigon, eight advisers were watching a movie. Viet Cong sprayed the room with bullets, wounding six. Two died, the first of 58,220.

georgewill@washpost.com


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