Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Review: "1959: The Year Everything Changed" by Fred Kaplan

1959: The Year Everything Changed by Fred Kaplan. 322 pp. Wiley

Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A Changin'" is usually thought of as a Sixties anthem, but Fred Kaplan shows how the song could have applied to 1959, a year whose political and cultural currents presaged the upheavals of the 1960s.

Referring to fears of a nuclear confrontation with the USSR, Kaplan characterizes the time as a "twin precipice–the prospect of infinite possibilities and instant annihilation, both teetering on the edge of a new decade." The Americans and the Soviets were also involved in a space race and competed for influence in the Third World. Writers such as C. Wright Mills critiqued U.S. foreign policy in books that were forerunners to the next decade's New Left. Domestically, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission released its first report on racial discrimination, and G.D. Searle applied to the FDA for approval of the pill, liberating women in terms of career and sexuality.

Culturally, writers Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac produced a spontaneous, personal literature that railed against conformity and materialism. Artists Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg broke free from abstract expressionism to create a pre-Pop art focused on everyday objects. Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and Dave Brubeck forged breakthroughs in jazz composition, while Motown in Detroit launched a new generation of black recording artists. "1959: The Year Everything Changed" is a lively and fascinating account of history, politics and culture, one that gives us a new perspective on the year and the decade of the Fifties.

Listen to Fred Kaplan discuss this book on the Diane Rehm radio show; watch Kaplan discuss the book at Barnes & Noble in Brooklyn.

For those interested in related works, I recommend "The Fifties" by David Halberstam and "New York in the 50s" by Dan Wakefield.

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