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'1959: The Year Everything Changed' by Fred Kaplan

The end of the 1950s was a pivotal time, a cabinet of wonders, the author contends, that overshadows every other year, including those of the '60s.

July 19, 2009|Zachary Lazar | Lazar is the author of "Aaron, Approximately," "Sway" and the forthcoming "Evening's Empire."


The Year Everything Changed

Fred Kaplan

Wiley: 336 pp., $27.95


When a writer needs a break these days, he picks a year -- 1968 was popular last year -- and spends a few hundred pages arguing how it's central to our lives now. This year, we have Rob Kirkpatrick's "1969: The Year Everything Changed" and now Fred Kaplan's "1959," whose subtitle makes the same claim. Can it be true of both years? The answer is yes, of course. That's the thing -- every year is the year. In just this past June, we saw violent protests in Iran, a coup in Honduras, the sentencing of Bernie Madoff, the death of Michael Jackson, and the implosion, via sex scandal, of two Republican presidential hopefuls. There's always a hailstorm of interest out there. And the challenge is in making these disparate, interesting things cohere and produce some sort of larger meaning. The challenge for a book like "1959" is not simply gathering together all the interesting data about Kaplan's favorite year -- and it is a fascinating one -- but in presenting it with a style that's meaningful and inventive.

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. Forget Woodstock, forget LSD, forget the peace marches and "I Have a Dream." Forget also Altamont, Vietnam, race riots and the assassinations of the Kennedys, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. "The truly pivotal moments of history are those whose legacies endure," Kaplan writes. "And, as the mid-forties recede into abstract nostalgia, and the late sixties evoke puzzled shudders, it is the events of 1959 that continue to resonate in our own time."

This is an incredibly audacious claim, but it highlights a problem with this type of book -- casual history, we might call it -- which never seems to decide if it wants to be really serious or just kind of fun. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, an expert on any number of subjects both political and cultural, Kaplan is capable of being as serious as anybody, and yet it's when his book is at its most serious that it feels least persuasive. What Kaplan really wants to do, I think, is illuminate some personal icons: Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman; Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs; Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns; Norman Mailer, John Cassavetes, Berry Gordy. Indeed, all of these artists were engaged in radically important work in 1959, tantamount even to a kind of renaissance. But then, how do you connect painting or jazz to the invention of the microchip (March 24, 1959)? Or the Cuban revolution (Jan. 1)? And what about the civil rights movement (King was in India, Malcolm X in the Middle East)? Or women?

Kaplan feels obligated to stop at all of these way stations, and this inevitably forces him to make generalizations ("for all the added risk and strain and restlessness, the breakaways and breakthroughs of 1959 eased, enriched, and emboldened the conditions and prospects of American life"). Writing like this often makes us forget that we're being presented with a cabinet of wonders.

There is John Howard Griffin, author of "Black Like Me," who -- after helping Jews escape the Nazis, losing his eyesight in a bomb attack, retreating to a French monastery to study Gregorian chant, regaining his eyesight -- has his skin artificially darkened so that he can tour the southern United States as a "black" man and report on how he's treated.

There is a 31-year-old Fidel Castro eating an ice cream cone at the Bronx Zoo -- not yet a feared enemy or despot but a kind of folk hero in a United States that, after Venezuela, is the second country to recognize his new regime. There is Ornette Coleman with a white plastic saxophone, playing music so weird that one audience "beat him up and broke his horn outside the club afterward."

There is Richard Nixon showing Nikita Khrushchev around an exhibition of American kitchen innovations. "Khrushchev refused to be impressed," Kaplan writes, "dismissing the Western wonders as either commonplace ('We have such things. . . . We are up with you on this, too') or contemptible ('Don't you have a machine that puts food into the mouth and pushes it down? Many things you have shown us are interesting, but they are not needed in life. . . . They are merely gadgets.')." In just a few paragraphs, Kaplan give us the Cold War in all its Strangeloveian absurdity, Nixon "like a nervous real-estate agent, trying to close a big sale" and Khrushchev "boisterous, bellicose, brimming with energy."

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