JUNE 15, 2009
When the World Tilted--Again
What do Motown, the microchip and Fidel Castro have in common?
By EDWARD KOSNER
Wall St. Journal
In 1959, I was a 22-year-old night rewrite man at Dorothy Schiff's scruffy, liberal New York Post, doing stories about the quiz-show scandals, slumlords, mob slays and a young senator from Massachusetts who was running for president. I read Norman Mailer's "Advertisements for Myself," listened to Miles Davis, went to a Lenny Bruce performance and saw John Cassavetes's "Shadows." I was blissfully unaware that I was living at a hinge of history.
Now I know better. Fred Kaplan's clever "1959" has almost persuaded me that the end of the Age of Ike was one of those turning points in political and cultural history that signal the emergence of a new way of living and thinking about it. Of course, it's an old trick to pick a year -- say, 1945, with the A-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or 1970, with the shooting of antiwar students at Kent State -- as the cusp of a new era or the end of an old one. But Mr. Kaplan, a magazine writer and columnist for Slate, makes an intriguing case that 1959 was an authentic annus mirabilis.
It was the year, as Mr. Kaplan's handy timeline reminds us, that Fidel Castro took power in Cuba, Berry Gordy started Motown records in Detroit, Allen Ginsberg recited "Howl" at Columbia, the Pioneer spacecraft blasted off, the dirtiest version of "Lady Chatterley's Lover" was published, Toyota and Datsun (now Nissan) made their American debuts and Ford mercy-killed the Edsel, the microchip was introduced, the first U.S. soldiers were killed in Vietnam, Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum opened, Martin Luther King went to India to study nonviolence, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were shown at the Museum of Modern Art, and Searle sought approval to sell the first birth-control pill, Enovid. In sum, a year "when the world as we now know it began to take form."
All these events had back-stories, and part of the fun of "1959" is sparked by the cultural artifacts Mr. Kaplan unearths. Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" became a sensation, it turns out, because the New York Times's stuffy daily book critic, Orville Prescott, was on vacation when it was published and the book was given to staffer Gilbert Millstein, who had once assigned a piece on the "Beat Generation" for the Times's Sunday magazine. Millstein hailed Kerouac's beat epic as an "authentic work of art" and a"historic occasion"; even though Prescott trashed the book on his return, Kerouac was launched.
Mr. Kaplan also resurrects some of the more bizarre characters of the era. One was Herman Kahn, the 5-foot-8-inch, 350-pound nuclear theoretician -- the inspiration for "Dr. Strangelove" -- who lectured Americans that most of the country could survive a nuclear war. "You hear that New York is destroyed, but you are in Princeton," cheerfully forecast Kahn, who happened to live in Princeton.
Some of Mr. Kaplan's strongest chapters deal with the evolution of Dr. King and the man who seemed to some his evil twin, Malcolm X, the Black Muslim apostate, and the civil-rights rebellion that gained momentum after the first lunch-counter sit-in in Greensboro, N.C., a month into the 1960s. The author gives credit to the now all-but-forgotten September 1959 report of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, a chart-laden, 668 pages that meticulously documented the scope of racial discrimination in America. Southern senators immediately tried to kill the commission. "Isn't a segregated life the proper life?" asked Mississippi's Jim Eastland. "Isn't it the law of nature?"
A jazz critic as well as a popular historian, Mr. Kaplan is enraptured by the genius of black jazzmen like trumpeter Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman, who played a white plastic alto saxophone. Between them, Davis and Coleman demolished jazz's classic bonds to scales and chords, creating a new, freer music that somehow still clung to coherence -- for Mr. Kaplan, it is a miracle of creativity. He pays equal attention to Mailer and Ginsberg, to Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, to Johns and Rauschenberg, who once borrowed a pencil sketch from the master Willem de Kooning and used 40 erasers to reduce it to a "wispy glow" before mounting it on his studio wall.
For all the brilliance and flamboyance of these artistic marvels, the greatest forces of change came from the laboratory and the tech skunkworks. The world had seen and absorbed artists far more influential than Davis and Mailer and Johns. But it had never encountered anything like the birth-control pill and the microchip, tiny objects with uses that irreversibly transformed nearly every aspect of human life.
Enovid was the dream of Margaret Sanger, the frisky little planned-parenthood crusader, who told a hormone researcher named Gregory Pincus early in the 1950s that she'd been longing for a "magic pill" since 1912 and funneled grant money to him. Within a decade Enovid was on the market. Soon, a smart young woman named Gloria Steinem would be writing in Esquire of the new "autonomous girls" now "free to take sex, education, work, and even marriage when and how they like."
Evolved from the transistor, the silicon integrated circuit was the work of a tinkering engineer named Jack Kilby. He showed off his little gizmo at a radio engineers' trade show in New York in March 1959. The debut of Kilby's microchip -- the germ plasm of our laptop, hand-held, wall-mounted, broadband, blog-sodden digital age -- merited two paragraphs in the next day's New York Times.
Mr. Kaplan rhapsodizes about the liberating consequences of the social, cultural, political and technological changes that burst forth 50 years ago. He readily acknowledges, though, that radical movements spun off into nihilism, sexual freedom devastated families, the New Frontier led to Vietnam, drugs doomed many musicians, jazz noodled off onto the margins, and artists of all sorts conflated liberty with license.
And, for all the wonders integral to 21st-century life, it's hard to argue that we're happier today than in good old, prehistoric 1959.
Mr. Kosner is the former editor of Newsweek, New York magazine, Esquire and the New York Daily News. His memoir, "It's News to Me," has been reissued in paperback.
Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A13