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A year full of major change

I have a new book out called 1959: The Year Everything Changed.

There are a lot of books out there that insist a specific year, or type of fish or grain or mathematical equation, altered the course of civilization. But I went ahead with it anyway, not because I figured I was cashing in on a trend — if I do, I'll be more stunned than anybody — but because, well, I was convinced that 1959 was the real deal.

It began with simple curiosity. Several years ago, it occurred to me that many of my favorite groundbreaking record albums, books and movies — Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come, The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce, Norman Mailer's Advertisements for Myself, Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus, François Truffaut's The 400 Blows — were all released in 1959.

Was this just coincidence, or was it part of a pattern? Was there something more broadly significant about that time? The more I looked into it, the more it struck me that 1959 really was a pivotal year — not only in culture but also in politics, society, science, sex: everything.

Consider: It was the year when the microchip was introduced, the Food and Drug Administration held hearings on the birth-control pill, IBM marketed the first business computer, a passenger jetliner took the first nonstop trans-Atlantic flight, and America joined the Russians in the "space race." It saw the rise of free jazz, "sick comics," the New Journalism, and indie films; the birth of Motown, Happenings, and the Generation Gap; the Lady Chatterley trial that overthrew the nation's obscenity laws; the U.S. Civil Rights Commission's first report, which sparked the overhaul of segregation laws — all this bursting against fears of a "missile gap," the fallout-shelter craze, and the first U.S. casualties in the war in Vietnam.

Something was going on here, but what? I couldn't quite grasp the common theme, the connecting thread.

At some point in my research — it was still a casual query at this point, almost a hobby — I learned about a long-forgotten event that took place near the beginning of the year. On Jan. 2, 1959, a Soviet rocket carrying the Lunik 1 space capsule — also known as Mechta, or "the dream" — blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Tyuratam, Kazakhstan, accelerated to 7 miles per second (the magical speed known as "escape velocity"), sailed past the moon, and pushed free of Earth's orbit, becoming the first man-made object to revolve around the sun among the celestial bodies.

Lunik has since been obscured by the rapid milestones in space that followed. But it was a big deal at the time, the subject of front-page headlines and frightful fears on the floor of Congress. The next issue of Time magazine hailed the feat as "a turning point in the multibillion-year history of the solar system," for "one of the sun's planets had at last evolved a living creature that could break the chains of its gravitational field."

Suddenly the light bulb clicked on; the connections lit up. Lunik was a metaphor for all the great events of 1959 that I'd been investigating. The thing they all had in common was that they broke the chains of various gravitational fields, metaphorical or literal.

But Lunik wasn't only a symbol; it, and the race to space that it triggered, helped create the climate in which all those other breakthroughs were possible or, at least, appealing to a broad population. The breakdown of barriers in space, speed and time made other barriers ripe for transgressing.

Outer space and lightning speed animated the popular consciousness. Mass-circulation magazines and newspapers of the day suddenly ran lengthy articles explaining the "new geography" of solar orbits and galaxies. In the spring of 1959, NASA selected its first astronauts with great fanfare, and the space agency's lingo — blast off, countdown, A-OK — swooshed into the everyday lexicon. Madison Avenue touted new products — from cars to telephones to floor waxes — as "jet age," "space age," "the world of the future," "the countdown to tomorrow."

A young outsider named John F. Kennedy started running for president at the end of the year on a slogan of "Leadership for the '60s" — the first time that the future was defined in terms of a decade, which held out both menace and hope but in any case great change, which he beheld as a "New Frontier."

For the first time in a long time, flux and change were seen as the natural state of things; the enchantment with the new galvanized a generation of artists to crash through their own sets of barriers. And they attracted a vast audience — abetted by the rapid proliferation of televisions and pocket radios — that was suddenly, even giddily, receptive to their rebellion.

Yet the thrill of the new was at once intensified and tempered by an undercurrent of dread. Outer space loomed as a frontier not only for satellites and rockets but also for ICBMs and H-bombs. It was this twin precipice—the prospect of infinite possibilities and instant annihilation, both teetering on the edge of a new decade—that gave 1959 its distinct swoon and ignited its creative energies.

Now I saw a real book taking shape: not just a string of cool stuff that happened to occur in the course of one year but a coherent story about when the world changed and how — a book about what eras are, what important events mean, what historic personalities do.

Still, there was one question that all authors writing for commercial publishers have to face: So what? Let's say I manage to convince all comers that the signature phenomena of the '60s and beyond — sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll, the computer revolution, the feminist revolution, the New Left, the walk on the moon, and all the rest — had their origins at the end of the '50s, and that the instigators weren't the baby boomers but those who came of age amid depression and war and who emerged dissatisfied with the false peace that followed. Why, the question could be asked, should anyone care?

Initially, I didn't want to deal with this question. If some people don't care, so it goes; I think it's interesting; some other people will, too. In the back of my head, though, I knew this was a cop-out. Very few people read histories that shed no light on contemporary life, and, really, why should they? At the same time, I didn't want to squeeze and stretch my narrative to fit some Procrustean bed of relevance.

But the more I thought about it, the more the parallels between 1959 and 2009 seemed clear. Most obvious (though also, in a sense, most superficial) was the parallel between John Kennedy and Barack Obama — young outsiders, speaking with magical eloquence of great change and challenge ("unknown opportunities and perils," in JFK's words), whose very ascension smashed cultural barriers.

Yet a deeper parallel lay in the nature of the changes going on around them. On the precipice of another new decade — our own countdown to tomorrow — we are seeing a similar tangle of breakthroughs and breakdowns that marked the end of the '50s: global power fissuring, cultures fracturing, the world shrinking, and science poised to spawn new dreams and nightmares. Once more, there's a palpable sense that we're treading on completely new terrain. How this terrain shifted in 1959 — how people and institutions responded, their triumphs and disasters — holds lessons for the options that lie before us in 2009.

In the summer of 1959, Allen Ginsberg, the generation's visionary poet of exuberance and doom, wrote in the Village Voice: "No one in America can know what will happen. No one is in real control. America is having a nervous breakdown. … Therefore there has been great exaltation, despair, prophecy, strain, suicide, secrecy, and public gaiety among the poets of the city."

He might as well have written that today.

Fred Kaplan is Slate's War Stories correspondent and author of 1959: The Year Everything Changed.

A year full of major change 07/25/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 25, 2009 4:30am]
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