Yes, 1959. Not 1968 or ’71 or ’64 but the send-off year of the reputedly frumpy fifties was when the shock waves of the new ripped the seams of daily life, when categories were crossed and taboos were trampled. Other years boast transformative events (you can find them in almost any year if you look long enough), but 1959 was especially pivotal, though widely forgotten. It was the year when a rocket first broke free of the Earth’s orbit, the FDA held hearings on the birth-control pill, the microchip was unveiled, the 707 took its maiden nonstop voyage from coast to coast, and Berry Gordy founded Motown. Yet this New Frontier loomed as a place not just for satellites and rockets and a new youthful music but also for ICBMs and H-bombs. And so, 1959 was the year that saw panic over fallout shelters, fears of a “missile gap,” and Strontium-90 in milk. It was also when U.S. military advisers suffered their first fatalities in Vietnam.
The culture was changing, too, as a new generation of artists and writers crashed through their own sets of barriers—and attracted growing audiences that, amid the newness all around them, were suddenly, even giddily, receptive to the iconoclasm. New York emerged as the center of these changes, and it was 50 years ago that the city took on some of its still-familiar contours. That summer, Allen Ginsberg, the generation’s visionary poet of exuberance and doom, wrote in the Village Voice: “No one in America can know what will happen. No one is in real control. America is having a nervous breakdown … Therefore there has been great exaltation, despair, prophecy, strain, suicide, secrecy, and public gaiety among the poets of the city.”
He might as well have written that today.
On February 5, Allen Ginsberg gave a poetry reading at Columbia University before a crowd of 1,400. It was a big night for Ginsberg, his triumphant return to the campus that had suspended him over a decade earlier for scrawling obscenities on a windowpane. But it was also a turning point for American culture; given his bohemian lifestyle and apocalyptic verse, Ginsberg’s very presence, on a stage that had recently hosted T. S. Eliot, was a rousing impertinence. The faculty stayed away, not wishing to grant a “beatnik” the legitimacy of their attendance. Lionel Trilling, who had once mentored Ginsberg, was no exception. But Trilling’s wife, Diana, sneaked in and came away impressed, even moved. She wrote an account of the experience for the Partisan Review, noting “the unfathomable gap that was all so quickly and meaningfully opening up” between those who immersed themselves in Ginsberg’s reading and those, like her husband and his peers, who shunned it on moral principle. It was the first crack in the generation gap.