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Summer 2014
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Books and Culture

Edward Feser
Twilight of the Mad Men
Fred Kaplan’s engaging history of 1959
22 January 2010

1959: The Year Everything Changed, by Fred Kaplan (Wiley, 322 pp., $27.95)

Allen Ginsberg, C. Wright Mills, Miles Davis, Herman Kahn, Motown, Lenny Bruce, the Nixon-Khrushchev Kitchen Debate, Robert Rauschenberg, William S. Burroughs, the Space Race, Fidel Castro, Mort Sahl, the Pill, Norman Mailer, Dave Brubeck, Jasper Johns—Fred Kaplan’s new book reads a bit like an extended version of the R.E.M. song “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” with its rapid-fire litany of baby-boomer cultural references. Or perhaps the more apposite pop-music comparison would be to Donald Fagen’s album The Nightfly, with its bittersweet nostalgia for the New Frontier period. (Fagen, best known as cofounder of Steely Dan, provides a blurb for Kaplan’s back cover.)

But 1959: The Year Everything Changed purports to be more than mere nostalgia, and it is. In this, it’s like that other recent homage to the era Kaplan recounts, television’s Mad Men—and like it, too, in that it seldom lets preachy social commentary interfere with telling a good story. But there is this difference: whereas the AMC drama re-creates, and even (sometimes inadvertently) celebrates, the much-maligned culture of Organization Men, Stepford Wives, and three-martini lunches, 1959 returns to the familiar theme of how the hipsters and Beats of the Fifties set the stage for the Sixties counterculture, which would ultimately overthrow the squares.

This difference has made Mad Men’s approach fresh. Does it make Kaplan’s stale? What is there new to say? The answer is that Kaplan takes the year 1959 to be especially significant—to be the point in time when the various anti-establishment currents came to a head.

True (and as Kaplan would be the first to acknowledge), many key events in the transition from the Mad Men era to the sixties occurred earlier or later than 1959: Sputnik, and also Eisenhower’s enforcement of school integration in Little Rock, in 1957; John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960; Martin Luther King’s March on Washington and Kennedy’s assassination in 1963; and so on. But many crucial events did occur in 1959: Castro’s Cuban revolution and the beginning of significant U.S. intervention in Vietnam; NASA’s selection of the first American astronauts and the Soviets’ unmanned Lunik 2 mission to the moon; the patenting of the integrated circuit and IBM’s marketing of the first business computer; the submission of the birth control pill for FDA approval; the opening of the Guggenheim museum and the rise to fame of Rauschenberg and Johns; the publication of Burroughs’s Naked Lunch and the collapse of obscenity laws; and in popular music, the founding of Motown Records and the release of Davis’s Kind of Blue and Brubeck’s Time Out. The list goes on.

As it happens, Kaplan fails to discuss all the significant events that he could (and should) have. If revolutions in pop culture are as significant as Kaplan believes, shouldn’t the launch of the Barbie doll rate at least a mention, especially if “free jazz” pioneer Ornette Coleman gets an entire chapter? A more significant—indeed glaring—omission is Pope John XXIII’s announcement of the Second Vatican Council in January 1959, the consequences of which would prove as far-reaching as anything Kaplan recounts.

In fact, one sometimes wonders whether a more appropriate subtitle for 1959 would be The History of Stuff Fred Kaplan Likes. And what Kaplan likes most are modern art, modern literature, and jazz. But for precisely that reason, Kaplan is a helpful guide to the developments in question, even when one disagrees with him about their significance. He is not interested in uncritical boosterism. Though he is no cultural conservative, Kaplan allows that in the wake of the avant-garde revolution in art and music, “too many creative minds came to confuse freedom for license,” and that the new sexual liberty made possible by the Pill and celebrated by writers like Mailer and Burroughs “wrecked untold numbers of families.”

This should not have been surprising. When one considers the “combines” of a Rauschenberg, the “happenings” of an Allan Kaprow, or the “compositions” of a John Cage, it’s evident that they aren’t so much works of art or music as statements about art and music, statements that supposedly only the artist himself could evaluate. This combination of self-referentiality and subjectivism was bound to generate the chaos that Kaplan laments.

Nor is it clear that the cultural revolutionaries always succeeded, even on their own terms, never mind the bad theory and bad social consequences. Beat writers like Ginsberg saw themselves applying to literature the techniques of the bebop jazzmen. But it’s unlikely that “Howl” is as worthy of our admiration as are the compositions of Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. Is the difference merely a matter of mass appeal? Or does it reflect something in the nature of the forms themselves? An arrangement of notes can convey a feeling or a mood; an arrangement of words must convey a meaning as well. How can dissonance, while often exciting in the former, fail to be merely jarring and unpleasant in the latter?

But these are philosophical questions, and Kaplan is writing history. What that history suggests—more, it seems, than Kaplan realizes—is that the men who swept away the Mad Men were madder still.

Edward Feser is the author of The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism and, most recently, of Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide.

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