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The Gospel in Words: Obscenity, a rocket, the pill: Start revolt


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


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.