Why I wrote a book about 1959.

Reading between the lines.
June 18 2009 11:58 AM

1959

I swear, it really is the year everything changed.

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

1959: The Year Everything Changed,

I have a new book out called 1959: The Year Everything Changed, which I suppose puts me in the ranks of authors lampooned in a story in the June 16 New York Times about books with "titles that make extravagant, impossible declarations." The piece pokes particular fun at titles with "exorbitant claims" about "things that changed the world"—and still more at writers who "claim to have found the single year that changed the world."

Times reporter Patricia Cohen doesn't mention my contribution to the genre—she singles out books about 1968, 1989, and A.D. 33 (the year of Jesus' crucifixion)—but she seems to have my number. Or does she?

I entered into my project with apprehensions of just this sort of eye-rolling. 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 (Cohen's article is headlined "Titlenomics, or Creating Best Sellers")—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.

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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."

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