Big Books from the 1950s

The 1950s saw the emergence of literary lights including J.D. Salinger and Jack Kerouac, authors whose books questioned the status quo and the midcentury preoccupation with conformity. The decade’s best books were mired in the dark realities of recent history, and looked forward to seismic social shifts to come. Novelists explored cultural norms through timeless dystopic visions, and one of fantasy literature’s most enduring series was launched. These are some of the decade’s most indispensable books.

The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
Considered the ur-coming of age novel of the modern era, Catcher is a book that grows with you. A bleakly comic first-person cri de couer, it follows recently expelled prep student Holden Caulfield on an aimless ramble around New York City, through run-ins with former friends, a visit to the Central Park ducks, and his return to his parents’ luxe apartment, exploring his aching, barely submerged desire to reclaim the innocence of childhood.

Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
This often-banned book is a love story, a paean to 1950s Americana, a breathtaking portrait of a sociopath, and the most memorable road-trip book you’ll ever read. When European academic Humbert Humbert first lays eyes on Lolita, he’s a rootless wanderer with movie-star looks—and she’s a 12-year-old “nymphet,” the daughter of Humbert’s faded maneater of a landlady. He marries the mother to get to the girl, and a twisted tale of obsession begins. After mom is dispatched, Humbert and his Lolita cross the country together, on a soda-pop-and-comics–fueled trip to keep them a step ahead of anyone who might suspect the true nature of their relationship. Lolita’s fate inspires pity and horror, as Nabokov’s sublime prose inspires awe, journeying toward a dark end for his pedophile protagonist that’s intimated in the book’s first pages. In the words of Humbert Humbert, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”

East of Eden, by John Steinbeck
Steinbeck’s California epic is Biblical in its proportions as well as its themes, recalling both Cain and Abel and the snake in the Garden. Brothers Charles and Adam Trask, one viciously violent and the other a sensitive seeker, play out their roles as Cain and Abel, complicated by the arrival of a psychopathic cipher of a woman who becomes the mother to Adam’s own two sons. Elsewhere in their Salinas Valley home, silver-tongued Irish patriarch Samuel Hamilton raises a clan with his dour wife, intersecting with the Trasks and representing one stripe of American ingenuity and self-made success. This multigenerational epic brims with landscape poetry and sensitive character studies, and explores the endlessly resilient properties of the human spirit.

On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
Kerouac’s Beat masterpiece defined a certain kind of American seeker, one who rejected societal norms and struck out for an unencumbered life. And the fact that Kerouac lived this life himself, and loosely based his books on his own experiences, have only made them more appealing. His fictional alter ego Sal Paradise criss-crosses the country with a pack full of sandwiches and, often, with companion Dean Moriarty, a thinly veiled Neal Cassady. They seek out “the mad ones…mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved,” chasing down the transient highs of new experience and an unfettered existence. Kerouac famously claimed to have written the book in three coffee-fueled weeks, and more than 50 years later, his novel still sings with youthful immediacy.

Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
In Golding’s chilling masterwork, a group of boys wash up on a deserted island after a shipwreck. The boys create a microcosmic society, one that rapidly breaks down as their middle-class manners decay. A survival-of-the-fittest free-for-all ensues. The battle for the souls of every boy on the island boils down to a showdown between prime antagonist Jack, a violent alpha who believes might equals right, and Ralph, a sensitive boy who desperately fights against the descent into tribal chaos. The novel can be read as an allegory or an indictment of mindless conformity, or as the scariest, most mesmerizing beach book you’ll ever pick up.

Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
Ellison’s bleak and bracing portrayal of the politicization of a young African American man stands among literature’s most powerful indictments of American racism. Over the course of the narrative, Ellison’s unnamed protagonist is transformed from an ambitious academic, enduring humiliation to secure a scholarship at an elite black college, to a political firebrand working for an interracial organization called the Brotherhood, to the titular “invisible man,” hiding in one of New York City’s forgotten corners in order to write his story. The book argues that the honoring of selfhood, even over community, is the most powerful political statement an oppressed individual can make.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s, by Truman Capote
Holly Golightly, the quicksilver heroine of Capote’s indispensable New York novella, has come to serve as shorthand for a certain kind of woman—a proto manic pixie dream girl given a second, equally timeless, life onscreen by Audrey Hepburn. The novel is narrated by a writer who meets Holly after she moves into his building. She’s a completely self-made construction, a penniless farm girl who forms herself into a knowing member of café society, living on the money she gets from the rich men who adore her. It’s a wistful story of missed connections, hard-lost naiveté, and a bygone world where beautiful women were given money to go to the powder room.

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
Bradbury’s dystopian classic still has the power to strike fear in the heart of readers. It imagines a world in which human life is cheap, television is king, and books are illegal and subject to burning. When our protagonist, fireman and career book burner Guy Montag, meets a young woman who piques his curiosity about the world as it was before, he starts taking risks to save books from the flames, and finds himself on the run. This is a cautionary tale about the evils of censorship, conformity, and anti-intellectualism, published at a time when many Americans were enjoying their first television set.

Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak
Pasternak’s controversial, Nobel Prize-winning bestseller went unpublished in his home country of Russia for 30 years after its 1957 release, and Pasternak was blocked by the Soviet government from receiving the Nobel prize during his lifetime. The novel follows Dr. Yury Zhivago through the years of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath, as he struggles to choose between his wife and Lara, the captivating wife of another man, whom he seems fated to keep meeting. Their doomed love story spans years and multiple separations, serving as a melancholy throughline of a tale encompassing a turbulent chapter of modern Russian history.

The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
J.R.R. Tolkien’s three-volume masterwork, starting with this 1954 novel, introduced into popular culture perhaps the most meticulously created fantasy world in literature. Complete with maps, languages, and a deep sense of its own invented history, Tolkien’s story captures the journey to destroy a dangerous ring undertaken by a quartet of hobbits, the wizard Gandalf, and others. Its settings ranges from the village of Hobbiton to the elflands to the peaks of Mordor, and its indelible characters have become an indestructible part not just of fantasy fiction but of the pop-culture landscape.

Peyton Place, by Grace Metalious
Metalious’s scandalous, often vicious account of small-town secrets, dissatisfactions, and hypocrisies inspired both a film and a soap opera that ran from 1964 to 1969. The placid exterior of the fictional Peyton Place, New Hampshire, hides a morass of societal ills, explored largely through three women: unmarried mother Constance Mackenzie; her daughter, Allison; and Selena Cross, a girl saddled with poverty and a sexually violent stepfather. In an era when keeping up appearances ruled, this book’s exploration of the darkness lurking behind even the most brightly painted doors ignited readers’ imaginations.

Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand
Rand’s controversial bestseller, both revered and reviled, is not just a narrative, but the distillation of her closely held political and moral beliefs. Against the backdrop of a dystopian U.S., railroad vice president Dagny Taggart navigates threats to her company and the compromised expectations of family and friends. When fellow business leaders start disappearing, the mystery leads Taggart and her lover, industrialist Hank Rearden, to John Galt, a man determined to bring down the government through a business strike. Galt serves as a mouthpiece for Rand’s Objectivist beliefs.

From Here to Eternity, by James Jones
The first of James Jones’ trio of World War II novels, followed by 1962’s The Thin Red Line and 1978’s Whistle, From Here to Eternity won the National Book Award and was made into a movie starring Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, and Frank Sinatra. It centers on three soldiers stationed in Hawaii in the warm months of 1941, as they brawl and haze and betray each other, attempt to assert their individual will, and discover what happens to the nail that stands up.

A Good Man Is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Connor
O’Connor’s stories, like life, are “nasty, brutish and short,” populated with tricksters, ciphers, and benighted people born into small destinies they’re unable to escape. Her stories are also darkly funny and addictively readable, each a window onto the small tragedies and even smaller minds of farm folk, drifters, and opportunists in the heartland.

Gift from the Sea, by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
This wildly popular bestseller, written by an acclaimed author also known as the wife of aviator Charles Lindbergh, is an essayistic exploration of the joys of solitude, marriage and love, growing old, and Morrow Lindbergh’s own experiences as a woman of the era. It’s a book meant to nurture readers’ souls, full of wisdom that rings true more than a half century later.

The Power of Positive Thinking, by Norman Vincent Peale
This is the book that launched a thousand imitators. Another inspirational text that has stood the test of time, Peale’s self-help classic has a simple but timeless message of positivity, grace under pressure, and treating yourself with kindness. The rewards his methods promise include easing of worry and the realization of goals—and with millions of copies sold, who can argue with its enduring power?

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