clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Gospel in Words: 1959: A rocket, a pill and obscenity start a revolution

In the summer of 1959, our family moved from Salt Lake City to the San Fernando Valley, then a relatively sleepy, smogless suburb of Los Angeles. L.A. was a big vibrant city with, even then, the glitz of Hollywood. Yet it was a city full of optimism and more than the veneer of innocence.

The Brooklyn Dodgers became the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1958 and promptly beat the Chicago White Sox to claim the 1959 World Series. "Bonanza" hit our TV screens in 1959, and other popular TV shows of that year included "The Donna Reed Show," "Perry Mason," "Howdy Doody," "Father Knows Best" and the now iconic pre-revolution series "Leave it to Beaver."

Now comes Slate columnist, Fred Kaplan, with a new book, "1959, The Year Everything Changed." Though it overstates (Can one year really be the pivot point for a whole cultural change?), Kaplan shows that many of the seeds of what became the '60s sprouted in 1959.

In his first chapter, Breaking the Chains, Kaplan notes that on Jan. 2, 1959, a Soviet rocket carrying the Lunik I space capsule blasted past Earth's orbit and became the first man-made object to revolve around the sun. "The flight of the Lunik set off a year when chains of all sorts were broken with verve and apprehension — not just in the cosmos, but in politics, society, culture, science and sex. A feeling took hold that the breakdown of barriers in space, speed, and time made other barriers ripe for transgressing."

One of the important pillars of his long rumination on the year 1959 is Kaplan's focus on the literary scene of that year and in particular, challenges to the literary establishment and to obscenity standards. There are a number of manifestations of the assault on then-settled sensibilities. While Norman Mailer had been publishing for more than a decade, it was in 1959 that he embarked on a new kind of book, "Advertisements for Myself," which reflected a new kind of writing. In "Advertisements," Mailer would, throughout the book, "interrupt the narrative, recount how he came to write the piece, what was on his mind and how he felt at the time, (and offer) the most blistering judgments of others." The book marked the beginning of "two literary genres that would transform American writing through the rest of the century: the confessional memoir and the New Journalism."

1959 also brought the resurgence of Alan Ginsberg and his friend Jack Kerouac. Ginsberg and Kerouac were initially rejected but later embraced by the literary establishment. In earlier years, they had been dubbed the leaders of the "beat generation." By 1959, the beat generation had been transformed into beatniks.

Much of the assault on literary standards was fought in the courts. In the late '50s and into 1959, Ginsberg's "Howl and Other Poems" was declared obscene by customs officials. In early 1959, an unpublished novel by William Burroughs was seized by the postmaster general and declared obscene. Eventually D. H. Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover" found its way into court. All these were tests of a 1957 Supreme Court decision defining obscenity. By mid-July a federal court ruled that "Lady Chatterley's Lover" was not obscene. While this was not the end of obscenity cases, it clearly broke the back of obscenity prosecutions. Kaplan notes, "there was an appetite for forbidden fruit, wherever it was growing — and an audience for anyone who spat its seeds in the faces of authority." If all this wasn't enough, Lenny Bruce made his first appearance on television in April 1959 on the Steve Allen Show.

Then came The Pill. On July 23, 1959, G. D. Searle Pharmaceuticals filed an application with the FDA requesting permission to market the drug Enovid, explicitly as a birth-control pill. The availability of the pill was directly responsible for the dramatic decline of the American birth rate in the 1960s. But more than its demographic significance were the social consequences. Shortly after the pill was approved, Gloria Steinem would write in Esquire magazine, "The Moral Disarmament of Betty Co-ed," in which she predicted that the pill would sire a new breed of "autonomous girls" who, like men, would be "free to take sex, education, work, and even marriage when and how they like."

Next week: More on the '50s and '60s.

Joseph A. Cannon is editor of the Deseret News. E-mail: