Click here to read about one of the revolutions described in 1959: The Year Everything Changed.
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.
Click here to read about one of the revolutions of 1959.