I'm late getting to Fred Kaplan's 1959: The Year Everything Changed (Wiley, 2009), but that's OK because Kaplan cheats: He doesn't stick to events of 1959 but shows us how before, during, and after that year so many creative Americans abandoned traditions and plunged us into the brave new 1960s.
Kaplan describes succinctly 1959's seminal political and cultural events, including Fidel Castro's Cuban takeover, the start-up of Motown Records and the closing down of Edsel production, publication of Lady Chatterley's Lover and the end of moral censorship, NASA's selection of seven astronauts, and the first U.S. military deaths in Vietnam. He also misses a few, such as the premiere of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone and the discovery of an Australopithecus skull in Tanzania.
For me, though, the shock came in Kaplan's descriptions of the hot new books of that era, because those were the books assigned to me as great works in college classes 10 years later. Yes, I read some Plato and Aristotle, but I read more of the Marxism mainlined by C. Wright Mills and William Appleman Williams. I had read lots of Shakespeare in high school and was eager to move on to what professors said was the truly relevant stuff: Naked Lunch by William Burroughs, On the Road by Jack Kerouac, Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth, and Advertisements for Myself by Norman Mailer.
It's not helpful for any of us to look back at the 1950s as a golden age just because it had a religious veneer and a certain Cold War unity based in opposition to Communism. It was a saner decade than the one to come, but the propaganda of leftist professors in the late 1960s had plausibility because millions were searching for meaning. Did many in today's younger generation flock to Barack Obama last year for the same reason?
You've probably heard it said that we can describe the work we're doing in three ways: laying a row of bricks, constructing a building, or contributing to a great cathedral that will glorify God. Those in the 1950s who saw purpose in their work but not ultimate purpose spoke of constructing buildings, but their children yearned for cathedrals. Burroughs, Kerouac, Roth, Mailer, and others said to the builders of the 1950s, "You're fooling yourself. You're only laying a row of bricks."
The bricks of the 1950s gave way to the sand castles of the 1960s, so we look back on solidity lost, but solidity by itself was insufficient.
France's Jean-Francois Revel for 30 years illuminated for Europe's leftists the follies of Marxism. He died in 2006 but the first English edition of his Last Exit to Utopia (Encounter) came out last year, and it's well worth giving to Europeans-and even some Americans-who are newly attracted to the doctrine that, even after the Soviet Union's demise, just won't stay dead.
Revel offers a thought experiment: "Imagine the response if a propaganda piece were aired oozing admiration for a journalist who collaborated with the Nazis. . . . The outcry would justifiably be immense." But he shows that writers who fawned over Mao, Castro, or Che Guevara are still applauded: Marxism has not lost "its aura of moral superiority," by which its unrepentant devotees may be criticized for errant brainwaves, "but their hearts were in the right place." From personal experience I can say that's wrong: My heart was diseased and so were those of others.
The apologists for Communist leaders should be treated like apologists for Adolf Hitler, and Revel performs a service by showing that the distance between Hitler and Lenin wasn't great. Hitler himself said (see Hitler Speaks), "I am not merely the vanquisher of Marxism, I am its implementer. . . . The whole of National Socialism is contained in Marxism . . . the industrial cells, the mass demonstrations, the propaganda material." The economic practice, emphasizing centralized industrial control, was similar. The difference: Socialists were and are classists, National Socialists racists.