- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 20, 2009

By Fred Kaplan
Wiley, $27.95, 322 pages, illus.

There’s something very off-putting about a hyperbolic title. The more the author trumpets the earth-shattering importance of his premise, the more the skeptical reader is likely to growl: sez who? But it would be wrong to let the title — or even the occasionally supercharged rhetoric — of Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author Fred Kaplan’s book put you off his fascinating, fact-filled look at this seething cauldron of a year:

“1959 was the year when the 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 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.”

As we stand on the cusp of what will no doubt be 10 years of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Sixties, with countless commemorations of society-altering events and occasions, it is salutary to be reminded that even the most revolutionary decades don’t begin crisply according to rigid calendar categories. We all know that the Beats of the 1950s paved the way for the Beatles and hippies of the 1960s, and Mr. Kaplan gives us a colorful and memorable account of their antics during 1959. But what makes his book especially interesting is the host of other truly pivotal events that he spotlights, running the gamut from art to politics, from literature to jazz.

The year certainly began with a bang: On just its second day, the Russian Lunik 1 rocket “sailed past the moon, and pushed free of Earth’s orbit, becoming the first man-made object to revolve around the sun among the celestial bodies.” In the next decade, the space race between the Americans and the Russians proved one of the most competitive aspects of the Cold War rivalry, but also undeniably the most fruitful, culminating only 10 years later with Neil Armstrong’s moon landing in July 1969. Today, with the Cold War gone but not forgotten, Americans and Russians work together manning the International Space Station, something unimaginable 50 years ago.

All sorts of barriers were breached. Mr. Kaplan points to John Cassavetes’ independent feature film “Shadows,” first screened in New York on Nov. 11, 1959, as opening up American movie making beyond Hollywood’s hegemony and unleashing countless quality independent homegrown films to compete with Europe’s and Japan’s. Landmark court cases involving D.H. Lawrence’s novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and a film based on it effectively ended censorship of written and dramatic material, no matter how titillating. In movie house and publishing house, all bets were off henceforth. And not just there: Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl were cavorting in nightclubs saying words that would have been unthinkable in public not long before. And if things were not quite that dramatic or groundbreaking in the world of art and music, Mr. Kaplan points to the opening of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City on October 21 and to the efforts of Jasper Johns, John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong and Berry Gordy in this year.

Undoubtedly, the most far-reaching innovations of 1959 were the development and clinical trials of the birth control pill and the introduction of “a new device that would change the world as profoundly as any invention of the 20th century — the solid integrated circuit, or as it also came to be called, the microchip.” In the latter case, there is no question of hyperbole: How can one overstate the changes ushered in by this particular invention? But, as Mr. Kaplan writes, the ability of women to control their reproduction was scarcely less revolutionary: “The Pill freed women to control not only when to have children, and how many, but also what to do with their lives.”

It is not necessary for us to accept Mr. Kaplan’s thesis to appreciate, enjoy and be enlightened by all that he has packed into this volume. What seems beyond doubt is that much of what happened in 1959 had very far-reaching consequences, well beyond the decade of the 1960s which they ushered in:

“This dual tension between ‘unknown opportunities and peril,’ as [John F.] Kennedy put it, did much to spark the creative energy of the era. It marked the onset of a new era in modern history, when — for better and for worse — nothing seemed out of the question, no option definitely foreclosed. Life’s hairpin curves could be avoided through various means — drugs, therapy, denial, or dropping out. But those who immersed themselves in the voyage experienced the thrill and vertigo that came from streaking across the edge of a tomorrow that might bring miracles or catastrophe in an instant — a tomorrow that still haunts us today.”

In these words with which “1959: The Year Everything Changed” conclude, the exuberance of Mr. Kaplan’s prose shows itself not to have been worn down in the process of writing his book. But undeniably the ripple effect of those innovations of 1959 is still disturbing our universe for better and for worse and show no signs of dying out anytime soon.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide