1959 [Reading Challenge 2023]


by Fred Kaplan
John Wilwy & Sons, Inc., 2009

[ #14  — Article free in ’23: Read a book whose title doesn’t contain “a” “an” or “the.” ]


1959 by Fred Kaplan is a sociopolitical history book about various events of that year that “broke the barriers” and opened up new frontiers in music, media, politics, and even sex. It was an eye-opener to me because I had never heard of any of this stuff, which occurred a few years before I was born.

The birth control pill, for example, came to be because of the efforts of two women, both independently wealthy, who saw their work only come to fruition in their old age. Margaret Sanger and Kathleen McCormick were both women’s rights activists; Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, was the genesis of the idea, McCormick the financial backer and supporter. I didn’t think I would enjoy this chapter as much as the others, but I did, because it ran so counter to the narrative I thought I knew – of Big Pharma inventing a drug because there was a demand for it, not two women supporting research into artificial female hormones on their own dime, doing the legwork until the industry giants took an interest in it. (At first, the Pill was marketed as a relief for menstrual miseries.) This chapter was the only one to focus on the achievements of women while all the rest, usual for 1950s America, were about the accomplishments of men.

This isn’t to say, though, that women were entirely absent. The accomplishments of Peggy Guggenheim and Hilla Rebay in getting the Guggenheim Museum built are touched on as well, and in fact they did more to get it built than the man it was named after.

The bulk of the book was, in fact, about the intersection of the music and art worlds, not surprising as the writer is also a jazz blogger. It’s too easy to relate the free-form innovations in jazz music to the wild spatters of Jackson Pollock’s drip canvases; yet the boundary-breaking scales of structures of 1950s jazz also had equivalents in literature (Norman Mailer, the Beat poets) and cinema (John Cassavetes.) Kaplan speckles the chapters with anecdotes of artists, writers, and musicians moving between these worlds, hanging out in coffeehouses together, attending the same parties. The book was perhaps too heavy on jazz music (the author’s specialty) but I didn’t mind, it was interesting to me.

The book is also helped by the structure of its chapters, in which each pivotal event is presented chronologically, in the order it appeared in the year, though within each chapter time hopscotched back and forth from the event’s lead-up to its later impact. Each chapter built on the next, so, by the end when President John F. Kennedy makes his declaration to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, the reader feels that all this has been a narrative buildup to making the impossible, possible, and taking the idea of a new frontier as far as it can go.

I wonder, though, if that narrative is dated already. The book was published in 2009, still a heady, optimistic time, when boundary-smashing was seen as right and good, and still to be expected. From today’s viewpoint of 2023 I wonder if it set off an era that has gone too far, devolving into chaos, violence, and authoritarianism. Perhaps in a few years historians will look at the 1960s in a different light.

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