Monday, April 12, 2010

'1959: The Year Everything Changed'

This book review appeared in the August 21, 2009, edition of The Metro Herald of Alexandria, Virginia. (Cross-posted from Rick Sincere News and Thoughts of July 23, 2009.)

Rick Sincere
The Metro Herald
Entertainment Editor

One could forgive a certain solipsism among readers born in 1959 who may think that Fred Kaplan's 1959: The Year Everything Changed is about them personally.

That it turns out not to be so does not diminish the book’s entertaining and informative readability. Yet what it lacks in particular egocentrism (the author himself was born five years earlier) it makes up in idiosyncrasy.

What is most unfortunate about Kaplan’s collection of loosely related essays is that it simply does not live up to its subtitle. Then again, it hardly could, since every year has been (and will be) pivotal in one way or another. Pick a year out of a hat and one could list dozens of discoveries, innovations, inventions, or events that “changed everything.” (1776? The Declaration of Independence and the Battle of Trenton. 1941? Pearl Harbor and Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak. 1969? The moon landing and Woodstock. Try it yourself.)

What’s more, Kaplan stretches his pivotal year to include events that could properly be placed earlier or later.

Take for example, two scientific advances that truly did have titanic cultural repercussions. These two, in fact, were more influential with regard to how we live now than most any of the cultural, artistic, and political events discussed elsewhere in Kaplan’s book.

Kaplan devotes one chapter, “Toppling the Tyranny of Numbers,” to Texas Instruments’ introduction of the solid integrated circuit (or microchip) at an electronics trade show in March 1959 – even though the invention had been made by John St. Clair Kilby already in August 1958, when he demonstrated it to other TI scientists and executives.

Another chapter, “Andromeda Freed from Her Chains,” is about the birth control pill. Kaplan places this invention in 1959 rather arbitrarily, because the FDA hearing to decide whether to approve the Pill’s use for birth control purposes took place in late December of that year. But the Pill had already been approved for other uses and had been prescribed by physicians for two years by then; its final approval for specific labeling as a birth control drug came on May 11, 1960.

It is hard to imagine a 21st century without microchips – which make possible nearly all the devices that populate our daily lives, including the laptop computer used to write this book review – or the birth control pill, which really did unchain women and free them to pursue happiness and productivity outside of a narrowly defined role as housewife and mother, as well as continuing in that role as a matter of their own choice.

Kaplan may allude to the reasons for his book’s idiosyncratic choices late in its pages when, under the heading of “Acknowledgements,” he writes: “… several years ago, it occurred to me that some of the most important – or at least some of my favorite – books, movies, and record albums were made in 1959. Was this just coincidence, or was there something significant about that year? The more I looked into it, the more it struck me that this truly was a pivotal year – not only in culture, but also in politics, society, race, science, sex: everything” (p. 245).

For all his enthusiasm about “everything,” Kaplan has a crabbed view of society and culture.

For one thing, his book is highly – and almost annoyingly – New York-centric. On page after page, we are introduced to artists, musicians, philanthropists, publishers, and others who live in Manhattan and who meet each other at cocktail parties, jazz clubs, and museum openings.

It is fascinating, of course, to learn that Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, Ornette Coleman, Allen Ginsberg, and Norman Mailer all traveled in the same circles, and that they and their friends and associates shared ideas, built upon them, and diversified them in their different genres. But Greenwich Village is not the center of the universe; it really isn’t.

Even when talking about arts and culture in New York, Kaplan has a narrow definition of what is important. He devotes two chapters (out of 25) to innovations in jazz by Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman and their associates, but he says virtually nothing about the theatre (on- or off-Broadway). This was the year of Gypsy, for instance, often called the best musical play ever written, and of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, a pathsetting drama that broke the color barrier on Broadway. Neither are mentioned; nor are the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fiorello! and The Miracle Worker, which made stars of Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft.

Similarly, when he talks about movies, he mentions popular Hollywood films only to denigrate them in passing. He focuses on John Cassavetes’ semi-improvisational film Shadows – shot entirely in New York City -- and suggests (though not in so many words) that it was the first independent (or “indie”) film, which it surely was not. It might have been innovative, but it wasn’t fundamentally so.

Except for a passing reference to the growth of television set ownership over the decade of the 1950s, Kaplan ignores television – as an art form or as a means of communication about news and public affairs – completely.

There are also irritating little slips in the text, some that could have been caught and corrected by copy editors or fact checkers.

In a list of the seven Mercury astronauts, for instance, Kaplan renders Deke Slayton as “Duke Slayton” (p. 73) and, several pages later, he refers to Fidel Castro’s visit to the “Lincoln Monument and Jefferson Memorial” (p. 95). Out of all the structures dedicated to presidents in and around the Nation’s Capital, only one is called a “monument.” Lincoln, Jefferson, and Franklin Roosevelt have memorials. Taft, Wilson, and Theodore Roosevelt have bridges. Reagan has an airport; LBJ has a grove. Washington is the sole president with a monument.

There is also a strange bit of delicacy in his discussion of artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, of whom he says: “Soon they fell into an intense relationship, personally and professionally” (p. 174).

Well. In order to find out the whole truth – that they were gay and that they were romantic partners (the latter fact merely implied) – the reader must look up an endnote on page 289. Given that the endnotes are not marked in the conventional way within the text (that is, with a superscripted number to guide the reader to the note), it is unlikely that many will seek out this information on their own. Just whom is Kaplan trying to protect from this common knowledge?

We can grant that Kaplan can, and perhaps should, write about those subjects that most interest him (modern jazz, avant garde art, and Norman Mailer). If he chooses to ignore the wider culture in favor of a more elitist vision of arts, music, and literature, or to treat the rest of America as Saul Steinberg satirized Manhattanites in his famous “New Yorker’s View of the World” cartoon, so be it. That is his privilege as a journalist (and, perhaps, as a Brooklynite).

No matter how you look at it, however, Kaplan falls quite short in making the case for his hyperbolic claim that 1959 was the year that everything changed – or even the year that changed everything.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

1959: The Year Everything Changed, by Fred Kaplan. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, 2009. 322 pp. (including notes, photographs, and subject index). $27.95.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Rick Sincere was born on April 7, 1959, when everything changed for his parents and himself.

It is interesting to note, via a search of that there are other books with similar themes and titles, such as Bernard Diederich's 2007 book, 1959: The Year that Changed Our World, and Rob Kirkpatrick's book, released earlier this year, 1969: The Year Everything Changed, and -- even older -- 1998's What A Year It Was! 1959, by Beverly Cohn.

(Crossposted to Virginia Free Press.)

Be sure to visit my CafePress store for gifts and novelty items!
Read my blog on Kindle!