Back in the Day

What a Year It Was!

Fred Kaplan makes the case for 1959's primacy.

Book Cover Former Boston Globe and Pulitzer Prize-winning scribe Fred Kaplan (who also writes for Slate) can be forgiven for the hyperbolic claim of the subtitle in 1959: The Year Everything Changed (Wiley), as there are at least two other books that pretty much claim the same thing--and, after all, overheated rhetoric has not yet been made a crime (though it would be fitting to give law and order types a taste of what they ladle out). Plus, I personally hate to quibble with a fellow admirer of the greatness of Miles Davis's landmark recording Kind of Blue.

Kaplan's list of landmarks, benchmarks, high times, and transformations serves to picture that year and the late '50s and early '60s as a quaint movie set. A partial list includes the launch of the Soviet Union's Lunik I space capsule, Norman Mailer's Advertisements for Myself (a precursor of the me journalism he would later perfect in The Armies of the Night and Miami and the Siege of Chicago), hip (then referred to as "sick") comedians Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, the rise of Alan Ginsberg and William Burroughs, the beat generation's advance guard, the triumph of the Cuban (or at least Fidel Castro's) Revolution, the recording of the above-mentioned classic from Miles Davis, the publication of William Appleman Williams's seminal tome, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, photographer Robert Frank's iconic monograph The Americans (with an introduction by Jack Kerouac), the founding of Motown Records by Berry Gordy--and, oh yeah, Jack St. Clair Kilby's invention of the microchip.

Donald Fagen (of Steely Dan fame) concises masterfully, "Take a ride on the New Frontier with Fred Kaplan, your insightful (and hip) guide to the space race, thermonuclear war, the civil rights movement, the 'sick comics,' the Beats, and the beginnings of the Vietnam War, all to a soundtrack by Dave Brubeck, Ornette Coleman, Miles, and Motown."
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