Fifty Years On
What with all the 40th anniversary blathering about the “Spring of ‘68” and the international youth uprising that it is now fondly remembered as having represented (especially by the no-longer-youths who were there then and are now writing the cultural criticism), it was refreshing to read Rachel Donadio’s recent 50th anniversary tribute to 1958 in The New York Times.
In one paragraph Ms. Donadio wises up anyone who might still think of the ‘50s as having been culturally stultified and underachieving.
 saw the advent of everything from Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and Dr. Seuss’ “Yertle the Turtle” to “Doctor Zhivago” by Boris Pasternak, that year’s Nobel laureate in literature; the first American edition of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita”; Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”; John Kenneth Galbraith’s “Affluent Society”; Philip Roth’s story “Goodbye, Columbus”; and Jack Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums” — not to mention Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape,” Harold Pinter’s “Birthday Party,” Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” and Orson Welles’s “Touch of Evil.” Robert Frank captured the uncertain tenor of the time in his 1958 photography book, “The Americans,” as did Jasper Johns in his 1958 painting “Three Flags,” in which he superimposed three American flags, each smaller than the next, transforming the familiar into the abstract, the iconic into the unsettled.
The intellectual ferment was intense and real. The intellectuals, in journals like Partisan Review and Commentary, bemoaned the spread of the philistine popular culture. They thought the enemy was the Beats (with their noses thumbed at tradition and punctuation) or the middlebrows (with their soul-deadening Book of the Month Club).
Little did they realize that the real enemy was the prepubescents —the coddled offspring of the Greatest Generation— who were about to start using the spending power their parents were lavishing on them to impose their taste first on America and then on the world. Within less than a decade all the heated arguments about mass-cult and mid-cult would be as meaningful as those about angels and heads of pins.
In light of the violence and self-indulgence that was about to swamp the higher culture —and the academy that was supposed to be preserving and promulgating it— 1958 now seems like an oasis of civility and creativity.