Archive for Monday, July 20, 2009

1959 was turning point in history

July 20, 2009


— Fifty years ago, on July 21, 1959, Grove Press won permission to publish D.H. Lawrence’s novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” Two days later, G.D. Searle, the pharmaceutical company, sought government approval for Enovid, the birth control pill. These two events, both welcome, were, however, pebbles that presaged the avalanche that swept away America’s culture of restraint and reticence.

That change is recounted by Fred Kaplan, an MIT Ph.D. and cultural historian, in “1959: The Year Everything Changed,” an intelligent book with a silly subtitle. There never has been a year — or a decade, century or even millennium, for that matter — in which everything changed. There are numerous constants in the human condition, including (and because of) human nature. Furthermore, pick a year, any year, in the last, say, 250 and you will find it pregnant with consequential births and battles, inventions and publications that made modernity.

Besides, one reason America got into so many messes after 9/11 was the disorienting mantra that on that day “everything changed.” Still, consider how much 1959 did incubate.

Until into the 1940s, it had been a crime in Massachusetts to sell Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy,” in which Roberta loses her innocence to a factory foreman. In 1948, the Supreme Court affirmed a New York court’s judgment against Doubleday for publishing Edmund Wilson’s novel “Memoirs of Hecate County,” which depicted an extramarital affair.

In 1957, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of a bookseller for mailing obscene materials, saying that constitutional protection of free speech did not extend to obscenity, as determined by the Department of the Post Office, which had its own judiciary.

The court said, however, that the test of obscenity was “whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to prurient interest.” And to be obscene, material must be “utterly without redeeming social importance.”

So, would Lawrence’s novel be judged both prurient and worthless? Barney Rosset of Grove decided to find out by alerting the post office of his intention to import some copies from Europe. The post office impounded them. Then a court abolished restraints on sending them through the mail. Within weeks the novel was a best-seller, as was Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita.” Four months after the United States slipped the leash of Earth’s gravity by putting a satellite into orbit around the sun, social restraints, too, were being shed.

In July 1959, Searle sought FDA approval to market Enovid for birth control — not, as in 1957, to treat “menstrual disorders.” When finally the pill reached the market, U.S. News & World Report wondered whether it would be considered “a license for promiscuity” and “lead to sexual anarchy.” The very idea of “community standards,” the crux of the Chatterley decision, was becoming problematic.

Kaplan lavishes excessive attention on Norman Mailer, who today seems marginal. It is a significant datum — signifying today’s diminished importance of words — that the poet Allen Ginsberg’s 1959 recitation at Columbia University caused the sort of commotion that only a rock group could cause today. But Kaplan’s judgment that Ginsberg “saw the connection between freedom from structures in poetry and freedom from structures in all of life” merely validates the axiom that everything changes except the avant garde.

More serious change was coming, born of a mundane material, silicon. On March 24, 1959, at an engineers’ trade show, Texas Instruments introduced perhaps the 20th century’s most transformative device, the solid integrated circuit, aka the microchip. It would help satisfy what Kaplan calls Americans’ “yearning for instantaneity,” a cousin of the spontaneity (“first thought, best thought” proclaimed Ginsberg) so celebrated in the next decade.

Kaplan is especially convincing concerning jazz as a leading indicator of more serious, because more disciplined, cultural enrichment. On March 2, 1959, Miles Davis began recording “Kind of Blue,” perhaps the greatest jazz album. On May 4, John Coltrane recorded “Giant Steps,” on May 22, Ornette Coleman recorded “The Shape of Jazz to Come” and on June 25, David Brubeck began recording “Time Out.” The emancipation of jazz from what Kaplan calls “the structures of chords and pre-set rhythms” proved that meticulously practiced improvisation is not an oxymoron.

On July 8, 1959 — two months after President Eisenhower authorized U.S. military advisers to accompany South Vietnamese units on operations — in a hut 20 miles from Saigon, eight advisers were watching a movie. Viet Cong sprayed the room with bullets, wounding six. Two died, the first of 58,220.


trinity 8 years, 5 months ago

hey i was a successful incubation&birth in 1959. :)

cato_the_elder 8 years, 5 months ago

Will fails to mention the advent soon thereafter of the use of LSD, which he may have taken before he wrote this completely disjointed piece.

jonas_opines 8 years, 5 months ago

"1959 was turning point in history"

Saw the headline, saw the writer, and thought the next line was likely to be "It was the year that my life stopped." Sadly, less accurate synopses followed instead.

Danimal 8 years, 5 months ago

What a bunch of bologna, every year is the year that changed everything by these standards.

deskboy04 8 years, 5 months ago

The book he talks about is worth reading. But I got a little bored when he talked in detail about some things that happened in 1959 that I didn't think were very important.

beatrice 8 years, 5 months ago

Jazz has gone down hill since 1959.

Other big events of 1959 include the release of the movie Ben Hur, the Broadway opening of The Miracle Worker, William Burroughs published The Naked Lunch, Wilt Chamberlain made his professional NBA debut, Hawaii became our 50th state, the Guggenheim Museum opened and Frank Lloyd Wright died, Fidel Castro became Prime Minister of Cuba, and the Russians' Lunik II became the first man-made object to strike the moon.

Heck of a year 1959.

beatrice 8 years, 5 months ago

Nope, I mean Jazz as a musical form hit its zenith in 1959. Since then, it has been down hill. There might have been highs and lows along the way, but none of the highs matched the creative burst of 1959, the greatest year in jazz.

notajayhawk 8 years, 5 months ago

"Fifty years ago, on July 21, 1959, Grove Press won permission to publish D.H. Lawrence’s novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”"

And now, 50 years later, Amazon's Kindle digital reader has the built-in capability for Amazon to remotely, without permission, and without warning delete a copy of a book purchased from their service - a capability recently demonstrated when Amazon chose to mass delete copies of George Orwell's 1984 from the devices of users who had purchased them.

Isn't technology grand?

beatrice 8 years, 5 months ago

notajay, wow, I'd not heard that about the Kindle reader. How awful, and yet another reason why I won't buy one. Happy to say that my copy of 1984 is a weather-beaten soft cover purchased many many years ago, and Ray Bradbury's firemen will have to come and pry it from my cold dead hands before I give it up.

Paul R Getto 8 years, 5 months ago

Well, Mr. Will, we have come a long way from D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce to MTV and the comedy channel. If you are implying life was better when information and medical care was restricted, you are wrong. There are, of course, some running for office in 2010 who would like to return to those "golden years" if they get to pick what can and cannot be read and viewed and who gets which medical treatment or prescriptions.

Leslie Swearingen 8 years, 5 months ago

Ray Bradbury has always been one of my favorite writers and not only because we are both Irish Catholics who have cats. I like the cadence of his writing. Fahrenheit 451 gets to the core of why we do what we do.
I remember reading Lady Chatterleys Lover and being angry over the way the tin miners were treated. Also, I found it very odd that while the gamekeeper was willing to commit adultery with the masters wife, he killed the cat for taking some of HIs Lordships birds.

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