Most Americans associate seismic cultural upheavals - like women's
liberation and rock 'n roll - with the 1960s. But a new book asserts
that those changes were actually rooted in the supposedly drab 1950s,
and by end of that decade, they had come to a head.
Even half a
century after its release, Miles Davis' 1959 album, Kind of Blue,
retains a whiff of the avant-garde. By ignoring the classic scales of
jazz, the renowned trumpeter expressed the daring experimentalism that
suffused many areas of life that year in areas as diverse as art,
politics, social relationships, and science.
Beginning of space age
look at 1959, there was an enchantment with the new," says Fred Kaplan.
The Pulitzer Prize winning author of 1959: The Year Everything Changed
points to aviation as one area that embodied the high flying spirit of
the year. 1959 saw the first transatlantic passenger jet flight. It was
also the year America's Mercury astronauts were chosen.
Time magazine seemed to express the public's "gee whiz" enthusiasm most
ebulliently in a publisher's note following the Soviet Union's launch
of Luna 1 rocket on January 2, 1959. It was the first human artifact to
escape Earth's gravity.
"It hailed the achievement as 'a
turning point in the multi-billion year history of the solar system,'"
Kaplan says, "in that 'a creature of the sun had evolved to a point
where he could break free of his planet's gravity.'"
event seemed to epitomize what was going on at the time, the author
says. "It's all kinds of people in different walks of life breaking
free of the gravity that had been holding their predecessors down."
That, he says, "created the world that we came to know over the next
Breaking barriers in literature and entertainment
says events of 1959 led to the blurring of lines between public and
private, literature and pornography that we see today in the Internet
In 1959, publisher Barney Rosset successfully sued
the United States Post Office for confiscating copies of D.H.
Lawrence's sexually explicit novel Lady Chatterley's Lover. It was also
the year American writer Norman Mailer published Advertisements for
Myself, which fused literature, personal confession and social
commentary in new ways.
1959 also saw the first mainstream
record release by iconoclastic comedian Lenny Bruce, and his first
appearance on national television. "Lenny Bruce would talk about
politics and the church and sex and race in ways that nobody had ever
spoken before in public," says Kaplan. "And anything you see now of
this sort - HBO or Comedy Central or Showtime or George Carlin - all
stems directly from Lenny Bruce."
Many Americans think of the
1960s as the 20th century's most explosive era. But it wasn't the Baby
Boomers, born after World War Two, who lit the fuse, Kaplan says. "It
was a people who grew up through the Depression and World War Two, and
who were dissatisfied with the state of things." They had expected
things would change after the war, he notes, and they didn't.
1959, John F. Kennedy was preparing to run for president. He was
Catholic and young, and so, many thought him unelectable. Yet Kennedy
attracted young idealists in great numbers. He promised a "New
Frontier" where "the torch would be passed to a new generation of
For Kaplan, the "New Frontier" Kennedy meant
was the 1960s. "It was the future; it was tomorrow. So there was this
sense of 'something is new over the horizon' and there was this
appetite for it."
1959 was also the year
the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the birth control pill.
By freeing women from the fear of getting pregnant, the Pill ushered in
the so-called Sexual Revolution of the 1960s. It also allowed women to
enter the workforce without concern that their careers might be cut
short by unplanned motherhood. That put women on the road toward social
and economic equality. It's a cultural change we're still adjusting to
Fred Kaplan also emphasizes the importance of another
invention of 1959 - the microchip. One microchip was crammed with
enough electronic circuitry to replace tens or even hundreds of
thousands of transistors, the state of the art technology at the time.
Microchips made high-speed computers possible, Kaplan says. "[Without microchips,] you
couldn't even have a handheld calculator, much less a high definition
television or space communications."
course, 1959 marked the height of the Cold War between the United
States and the Soviet Union, and many of that year's technological
innovations enhanced our capacity for destruction, as well creation.
As Fred Kaplan points out in his book 1959: the Year Everything
Changed, we are still coping with, as well benefiting from, many of the
changes set in motion a half century ago.