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1959

1959

Yesterday I mentioned Fred Kaplan’s new book 1959: The Year Everything Changed, which I started on my flight to New York last Thursday and finished yesterday. I had read a review of the book in mid-June in the Wall Street Journal and was a little curious, but what got my attention was George Packer’s post at the New Yorker two weeks ago. I decided the book would be perfect reading for my upcoming New York trip and promptly ordered it.

The idea that any single year be the year that “everything changed” seems gimmicky at best, and perhaps puerile. But on the other hand, using a given year as the means to integrate developments in art, music, politics, science, and technology can work well, and it does here. I was going to summarize some of the items that Kaplan treats in the book, but Edward Kosner has already done the work for me in his WSJ review:

It was the year, as Mr. Kaplan’s handy timeline reminds us, that Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, Berry Gordy started Motown records in Detroit, Allen Ginsberg recited “Howl” at Columbia, the Pioneer spacecraft blasted off, the dirtiest version of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” was published, Toyota and Datsun (now Nissan) made their American debuts and Ford mercy-killed the Edsel, the microchip was introduced, the first U.S. soldiers were killed in Vietnam, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum opened, Martin Luther King went to India to study nonviolence, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were shown at the Museum of Modern Art, and Searle sought approval to sell the first birth-control pill, Enovid. In sum, a year “when the world as we now know it began to take form.”

All these events had back-stories, and part of the fun of “1959” is sparked by the cultural artifacts Mr. Kaplan unearths.

Missing is the Los Angeles Dodgers’ victory over the Chicago White Sox in the World Series, the first World Series I followed. I don’t know how it changed the world, but it was the first time a west coast team played in the World Series. Also that year the American Football League was formed, though it would begin play only in 1960. I’m sure a chapter could be written about how the US professional sports industry of the future had its roots in 1959. Evidently, despite the extraordinary range of Kaplan’s knowledge and interests, sports doesn’t make it.

Nonetheless, Kaplan tells a great story. Jazz is one of his professional interests, and his chapters on Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman are especially good. I also enjoyed learning, in the early chapter that focuses on Allen Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac, how the word ‘beatnik’ came to be. I had no idea it is one more gift Sputnik gave to US culture.

Perhaps you know the story. It starts in 1952, when Jack Kerouac told friend and writer John Clellon Holmes that whereas the generation after World War I was the Lost Generation, theirs was the beat generation. Holmes wrote an article in 1952 for the NYT Magazine with the title, “This is the Beat Generation.” Five years later, shortly after the launch of Sputnik, the SF Chronicle columnist Herbert Caen wrote about the bohemians in North Beach, saying they were as “far out” as Sputnik and calling them beatniks.

Good book.

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Categories: Books, History
  1. awilliams53
    July 28, 2009 at 5:42 PM

    I’ve got a set of recordings labeled, Dodgers ’59, which includes Vin Scully broadcasts from that wonderful year. Happy to make a copy for you, if you care to listen. Highlights include…

    Koufax strikes out 18.
    Roy Campanella night at Coliseum.
    Willie Mays homer that was recalled by Umpire Dusty Boggess.

    And, many other great moments!

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