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
"You 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.
Indeed, 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.'"
That 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 half century."
Breaking barriers in literature and entertainment
Kaplan says events of 1959 led to the blurring of lines between public and private, literature and pornography that we see today in the Internet Age.
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.
In 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 Americans."
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 today.
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."
Of 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.