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.
Those of us who weren't yet born in 1959 might think of that year as being pretty much the same as any other. And for all I know, those of you who lived through it do, too. But in 1959: The Year Everything Changed, Fred Kaplan, who writes Slate's "War Stories" column, contends that it was "the year when the shockwaves of the new ripped the seams of daily life, when humanity stepped into the cosmos and also commandeered the conception of human life, when the world shrank but the knowledge needed to thrive in it expanded exponentially when everything was changing and everyone knew it -- when the world as we now know it began to take form." Kaplan lays out the evidence to support his claim in 25 highly readable chapters, covering everything from Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and the Beats to the space race and the "missile gap" to the civil rights struggle and the advent of the birth control pill and the microchip. And that's just to name a few areas that Kaplan points out as having had watershed moments in 1959. "The truly pivotal moments of history are those whose legacies endure," he writes. "And it is the events of 1959 that continue to resonate in our own time." After all, as Kaplan indicates, without the microchip, introduced by Texas Instruments on March 24, 1959, where would the Internet, cell phones, and laptops come in? And without the Pill, for which FDA approval was sought on July 23, 1959, how different would our family structures -- and women's lives -- look today? Chilling thought. Let's hear it for 1959. --Amy Reiter