Book Review

Lots of information, few revelations on ’59

By Claude R. Marx
August 20, 2009

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When monumental years of the 20th century are listed, 1959 usually doesn’t make the cut. The roster usually includes 1932, 1948, 1960, 1968, and 1980, but Fred Kaplan has written a book-length brief for including the last year of the 1950s in the group of the most influential.

Although there is quite a lot of interesting material in it, especially about the arts of that time period, “1959: The Year That Changed Everything’’ did not convince this writer that historians have been shortchanging that year when discussing the 20th century.

Kaplan, a former Globe reporter, has covered a great deal of ground, synthesized a lot of information, and presented it an enjoyable manner. However, readers are likely to come away with it feeling they are well prepared for their next game of Trivial Pursuit rather than that they are learning about a monumental but previously overlooked year.

Some of the material was dealt with in a more comprehensive and elegant manner in David Halberstam’s “The Fifties’’ and readers can use that book to place some of the points made by Kaplan in broader context.

Kaplan is strongest on cultural history and has an encyclopedic knowledge of popular culture, especially jazz and to a lesser extent Motown.

His description of Ornette Coleman, who revolutionized jazz, is especially insightful: “He was trying to express a specific emotion, and the twelve notes of the Western scale didn’t always hit the target. In practice sessions, he would sometimes blow a note over and over, adjusting the mouthpiece or embouchure ever so slightly to get exactly the pitch he wanted.’’

Another illuminating chapter is the one on the new generation of comedians who thrived during that time, including Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl. Without the benefit of a video, Kaplan paints verbal pictures of their comedic styles and discusses the cultural context in which they worked. He also showed how they paved the way for the even more countercultural style that thrived during the 1960s.

Unfortunately, Kaplan diminishes the impact of his narrative by following his chapter on comedy with one on the futurist Herman Kahn, without an effective segue.

Kahn, who outlined a doomsday scenario of survivable nuclear war, comes across as the madman he was and the inspiration for the main character in “Dr. Strangelove.’’

Kaplan has written extensively about foreign policy and takes a decidedly liberal bias to his analysis. He is critical of the strategy with which many American leaders of the 1950s approached the Soviet Union. While in hindsight the flaws of the Soviet system seem obvious, those who were in charge during the Cold War were right to take an extraordinarily aggressive posture when making policy.

His analysis is stronger when he discusses the changing generation of political leaders who emerged during the late 1950s. Kaplan provides an engaging, albeit too brief, discussion of the rise to national prominence of John F. Kennedy, who symbolized the coming of age of the World War II generation. Those looking to learn about the nuts and bolts of Kennedy’s rise need to go no further than “Counselor,’’ the memoir of his top aide Ted Sorensen, which was published last year. Sorensen’s book is an elegant and detailed account of that subject.

The thumbnail sketches of many subjects related to the final year of the 1950s make “1959: The Year That Changed Everything’’ an informative book. Kaplan’s failure to tie the chapters together more effectively, however, gives it the feel of an essay collection rather than an extended narrative designed to prove a thesis.

Claude R. Marx is a veteran journalist who has written extensively on history and politics.

1959: THE YEAR THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING By Fred Kaplan, Wiley, 322 pp., $27.95

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