We are a nation of label makers especially when it comes to generations. We tend to define each decade by its dominant cultural zeitgeist, give it a name, then take pride in each of our own coming-of-age years. In the 1920s, we were 'Roaring' but had 'Great Depression' during the '30s and bounced back as 'The Greatest' in the '40s. We 'Counter-Cultured' ourselves in the '60s, but turned inward as the Me Generation for the '70s and got a 'Gen-X' rating for the 1980-90s. Then came the turn of the century and the best we've come up with so far is 'The Millennial Generation,' which is kind of boring, is just a number and really doesn't capture any cultural essence. Future folks might consider a label like the Digital Generation,' but that's another story.
It's the 1950s that need our immediate attention here. There is no 20th century decade that has been more mis-named than the '50s, an unheralded period that tends to disappear into history's void labeled as 'The Silent Generation.' And if perception is reality -- why not? It was the long sigh after the war-weary 1940s, a time for hula-hoops and Frisbees, a golf-loving president, an era when baseball catchers were the only people to wear their caps backwards and 'don't-ask-don't-tell' was 'don't mince and stay-in-the closet.'
Every once in a while a book comes along that helps remind us about the turbulent, complex and downright exciting 1950s. Now we have Fred Kaplan's enlivening 1959: The Year Everything Changed, which really could be called The Fifties, but that was already taken by journalist David Halberstam's fine historical account in 1993.
The unabridged, 10 hr, 30 min. audio edition is an advantageous way to access this book. (Audible.com) Joe Barrett's commanding narration reminds listeners about the intense fears and tensions of the atomic bomb, the Cold War, duck-and-cover decade when comedian Mort Sahl's said that when a plane flew overhead he didn't know whether it was going to drop a hydrogen bomb or spell out Pepsi-Cola in sky writing. As Kaplan points out, THAT was a primary zeitgeist of the times -- instant advancement or instant annihilation.
While the '60s are often labeled as a leftist insurgency of peaceniks and hippies, Kaplan reminds us that Sahl and Lenny Bruce, two of the more insurgent comics of the fifties, actually lost their careers in the 1960s.
Whatever new label we eventually come up with for this extraordinary period, the fifties was certainly a time of consequential innovation, a significant era of firsts.
It was the era that produced the first micro chip, the first transistor, the first ever solar cell, the first organ transplant and the extraordinary beginning of the space race with the world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1.
If art and literature is an accurate reflection of the culture, then the '50s can only be described as explosive. Kaplan, a journalist and contributor to Slate Magazine, spends a lot of time in 1959: The Year Everything Changed with the decade's remarkable contributions. Here's a taste:
In music: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, Jerry Mulligan, Ella, Sarah and Dinah. Miles Davis' album, "Kind of Blue" was the recording that became known as modern jazz. And lest we forget, this oh-so-silent generation blasted forth with Rock 'n' Roll and Rockabilly and the likes Elvis, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley and Jerry Lee Lewis.
In art: The decade often labeled as complacent, compliant and conservative, gave birth to form-breaking, non-objective art and abstract expressionism from artists like Pollack, Rauschenberg, Johns, de Kooning, Rothko and Kandinsky - all of which culminated in the opening of New York's groundbreaking Guggenheim museum in 1959.
You want innovation in movies? The fifties gave us On the Waterfront and Brando, James Dean, Paul Newman, Fellini, Bergman, Olivier, and Marilyn Monroe. Television created The Today Show, The Tonight Show, the anarchic comedy team, of Martin & Lewis and the template for the first and the longest running TV sit-com, I Love Lucy.
In literature, it was a decade that yielded the likes of Jack Kerouac, Ayn Rand, Vladimir Nabokov, Tolkien's Ring series, Catcher in the Rye, Charlotte's Web, Doctor Zhivago, Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury, Heinlein, the first James Bond book, the first Peanuts cartoons and the first Playboy Magazine.
But most of all, this supposedly laconic and soundless generation saw the 1954 Supreme Court ruling, Brown v. Board of Education that lead to the Montgomery Bus Boycott that lead to the desegregation of Little Rock that became the fountainhead of one the most significant revolutions in America's public policy since our 18th Century independence - the Civil Rights Movement.
The dynamics that were released in the fifties continue to resonate in our own time -- so energetic and so powerful for such a silent generation. We do need a new label for this period. If you like alliteration, how about The Fantastic '50s. Or The Fateful '50s?
No? What've you got? We're now taking suggestions.