Sunday, 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 unnoticed linkages."
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."