One of the major books of my college years was David Halberstam’s The Fifties. The conventional wisdom was that the book rescued the 1950s from its reputation for being Leave it to Beaver-style boring and that it presented the 1950s as the decade that wasn’t just before but that gave rise to the 1960s.
Well, that’s probably true. The Fifties did that. But it also did it while substantially ignoring the cultural life of the nation. The book doesn’t so much as mention Robert Rauschenberg or Jasper Johns, two of the Americans who helped cement America’s place as the post-Parisian land of progressive art. (And nevermind Halberstam’s referencing Rauschenberg & Co. as being on the vanguard of what would become the gay liberation movement. Didn’t happen.)
So just in time for American museums’ justifiable obsession with exhibitions of Robert Frank’s 1959(ish) classic series ‘The Americans,’ journalist Fred Kaplan has written a book examining 1959. The book presents the year as a turning point in 20th-century America. Appropriately enough it includes cultural events, including Frank’s series, the Beats, erotic literature, the birth of the Guggenheim, the ascent of Rauschenberg, Johns and more. It’s a much more complete look at how the decade — especially 1959 — was important than Halberstam’s book.
Bonus: C-Monster just published a not-your-usual Q&A with Kaplan. Don’t miss either!