1959: The Year Everything Changed

1959: The Year Everything Changed

by Fred M. Kaplan
     
 

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It was the year of the microchip, the birth-control pill, the space race, and the computer revolution; the rise of Pop art, free jazz, "sick comics," the New Journalism, and indie films; the emergence of Castro, Malcolm X, and personal superpower diplomacy; the beginnings of Motown, Happenings, and the Generation Gap-all bursting against the backdrop of the Cold War,… See more details below

Overview

It was the year of the microchip, the birth-control pill, the space race, and the computer revolution; the rise of Pop art, free jazz, "sick comics," the New Journalism, and indie films; the emergence of Castro, Malcolm X, and personal superpower diplomacy; the beginnings of Motown, Happenings, and the Generation Gap-all bursting against the backdrop of the Cold War, the fallout-shelter craze, and the first American casualties of the war in Vietnam.

It was a year when the shockwaves of the new ripped the seams of daily life, when humanity stepped into the cosmos and commandeered the conception of human life, when the world shrank but the knowledge needed to thrive in it expanded exponentially, when outsiders became insiders, when categories were blurred and taboos trampled, when we crossed into a "new frontier" that offered the twin prospects of infinite possibilities and instant annihilation-a frontier that we continue to explore exactly fifty years later, at an eerily similar turning point.

In 1959: The Year Everything Changed, acclaimed Slate columnist Fred Kaplan vividly chronicles this vital, overlooked year that set the world as we know it in motion. Drawing on original research, including untapped archives and interviews with major figures of the time, Kaplan pieces together the vast, untold story of a civilization in flux-and paints vivid portraits of the men and women whose creative energies, ideas, and inventions paved the way for the new era. They include:

Norman Mailer, musing on the hipster and the H-bomb while fusing journalism and literature in wildly new, influential ways; Lenny Bruce, remaking stand-up comedy by loosening the language and skewering politics and religion; Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman, shattering the structures of jazz; John Cassavetes, making a new kind of movie, with improvised dialogue, shot in the city streets, outside the Hollywood system; Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown, insinuating black urban music into mainstream pop culture; Barney Rosset, the owner of Grove Press, suing the government's censors and toppling obscenity laws; Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, advancing new and militant paths to civil rights and racial politics; Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Allan Kaprow, blurring the boundaries between art and life; Jack Kilby, a self-described "tinkerer," inventing the microchip, which triggers the digital age; Margaret Sanger, a radical activist in her eighties, spurring renegade scientists to invent a "magic pill" that lets women control their reproductive processes and unleashes the sexual and feminist revolutions; and John F. Kennedy, the coalescing figure of the era, campaigning for president as a young outsider, keen to grapple with the "unknown opportunities and peril" of the coming "new frontier"—just as Barack Obama, an even unlikelier outsider, confronts the eve of a new decade in our own turbulent time.

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Editorial Reviews

Charles Kaiser
In the pantheon of pivotal years…1959 hasn't previously rated a mention. But Fred Kaplan's energetic and engaging new book makes a convincing case for its importance…Anyone old enough to remember the '50s will be astonished to discover how many revolutionary seeds were sewn in the final year of that decade. Others who read 1959 will get a compelling and concise lesson in American social, cultural and political history.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Slate columnist Kaplan takes a contrarian view to the common wisdom that the '60s were the source of the cultural shift from pre-WWII traditions to the individualistic, question-authority world of today. In Kaplan's view, the watershed year in this transformation is 1959. He delves into that year's cultural and political scene, citing Miles Davis and his revolutionary album Kind of Blue; William Burroughs and his equally revolutionary novel, Naked Lunch; and the opening of Frank Lloyd Wright's radically designed Guggenheim Museum in New York City as examples of fundamental breaks with past conventions. Kaplan's case is cemented by three 1959 events that he convincingly argues were catalysts for paradigm changes in relationships between men and women (the pharmaceutical company Searle sought FDA approval for the birth control pill), in how citizens view their government (the first American soldiers were killed in Vietnam) and in communications and information transfer (the microchip was introduced to the world). Kaplan doesn't quite convince that 1959 was "the year when the shockwaves of the new ripped the seams of daily life," but his writing is lively and filled with often funny anecdotes as he examines some key elements in the transition from the mid to late 20th century. 16 b&w photos. (July)

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From the Publisher

* ""Immensely enjoyable reading... a first-rate book… You'd be amazed how much stuff was going on in the unpromising year 1959, and how it all comes under the heading of breaking the chains of the old and embracing the new... [Kaplan]'s a sort of wonky hipster, a type that subsumes and coalesces almost all of the characters -- physicists, poets, jazz musicians, astronomers -- who set America on fire at the end of the Eisenhower decade, and who people 1959, Kaplan's new book, which puts all of his passions between hard covers."" (The New Yorker)

""Kaplan's premise is certainly a good one. He's arguing that the real fulcrum of the 20th century and beyond is not -- as many argue -- the 1960s, but the unsung '50s. Those who love the AMC series ""Mad Men,"" set just after the epochal year, will find much to love in Kaplan's book."" (Los Angeles Times, July 19, 2009)

“Kaplan makes an intriguing case that 1959 was an authentic annus mirabellis.” (Wall Street Journal, June 15, 2009)

""Where he really shines is in his ability to capture longer-term trends in the snapshot of the year.... In Kaplan's careful interpretation of the year, 1959--even aside from its headline scientific and cultural milestones--was a simmering cauldron of innovation and change, with superficial conformity and false shallows hiding the depths beneath."" (DailyKos)

“This sprawling, holistic joy of a book explores, expands and provokes reassessment of an entire era--not just a year--in a way that is deeply satisfying and enlightening.” (dailykos.com, June 7, 2009)

Slate columnist Kaplan takes a contrarian view to the common wisdom that the '60s were the source of the cultural shift from pre-WWII traditions to the individualistic, question-authority world of today. In Kaplan's view, the watershed year in this transformation is 1959. He delves into that year's cultural and political scene, citing Miles Davis and his revolutionary album Kind of Blue; William Burroughs and his equally revolutionary novel, Naked Lunch; and the opening of Frank Lloyd Wright's radically designed Guggenheim Museum in New York City as examples of fundamental breaks with past conventions. Kaplan's case is cemented by three 1959 events that he convincingly argues were catalysts for paradigm changes in relationships between men and women (the pharmaceutical company Searle sought FDA approval for the birth control pill), in how citizens view their government (the first American soldiers were killed in Vietnam) and in communications and information transfer (the microchip was introduced to the world). Kaplan doesn't quite convince that 1959 was “the year when the shockwaves of the new ripped the seams of daily life,” but his writing is lively and filled with often funny anecdotes as he examines some key elements in the transition from the mid to late 20th century. 16 b&w photos. (July) (Publishers Weekly, May 4, 2009)

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780470730270
Publisher:
Turner Publishing Company
Publication date:
05/27/2009
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
336
Sales rank:
1,193,036
File size:
1 MB

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"An engrossing story about not just where the ’60s came from but the birth of the future. Kaplan does a masterful job of weaving together the strands — in politics, society, culture, and science — that have brought us to the postmodern age."
–Jonathan Alter, author of The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope

"It turns out there’s only one degree of separation between Miles Davis, the brilliant jazz innovator, and Herman Kahn, the Strangelovian nuclear-war theorist—and his name is Fred Kaplan. No one else could throw this fabulous cocktail party of a popular history, teeming with defiant hipsters, visionary inventors, artistic rulebreakers, and troublemakers of all kinds."
–Hendrik Hertzberg, Senior Editor, the New Yorker

"1959 is a riveting account of the year our modern age began. Everything did change, and you’ll be amazed by how much was going on, and how much it has affected the way you live your life now."
–Kevin Baker, author of Strivers Row, Dreamland, and Paradise Alley

"Take a ride on the New Frontier with Fred Kaplan, your insightful (and hip) guide to the space race, thermonuclear war, the civil rights movement, the ‘sick comics,’ the Beats, and the beginnings of the Vietnam War, all to a soundtrack by Dave Brubeck, Ornette Coleman, Miles, and Motown."
Donald Fagen, cofounder, Steely Dan

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