On BookTV, I just heard an affable journalist twenty years my junior read most of the first chapter of his book, "1959", and discuss in Q & A some of the rest. It makes a difference to have been born in 1934 instead of 1954 and to have been becoming a Classical art historian rather than a journalist. Mr. Kaplan, who writes for Slate, is reputed to be a quite good journalist.
By now we have had a decade of documentaries and special issues of periodicals and essays (both video and print) on discrete periods of the last century. Most of them, understandably, have been by persons now in their prime of life, which means, mirabile dictu, that they are too young to have been merely under thirty during the 1960s. By now, any of us who are at all observant know by heart the highlights of the databases that generated the time lines of all those commemorations. So I am prepared to judge Mr. Kaplan's work by what he includes, and what he says, that is not shared by most of the rest.
He does handle his database and his time line well, but I couldn't help but hear how much more alive and deep and 'textured' his recollections of the 'neglected' 1970s are. I hope he'll write a book on the late 1970s before his actual memories either fade or become hopelessly enmeshed in amalgamated journalism. Besides, I have several friends who are as much as twenty years younger than me, whose educational choices, whose attraits, were different from Mr. Kaplan's, apparently. Not better, not worse, but different. Mr. Kaplan seemed to assume that his 1959 was generally adequate, although, when he was questioned, he admitted that an Asian or European time line and discussion would have other emphases.
I do remember powerfully and vividly most of what Kaplan emphasizes: satellites, Eisenhower's stroke, hormone research and, with it, the availability of Enovid (which he pronounced differently from what we said at the time), and much else. Although one of my roommates worked for Ralph Gleason, it was only much later that I noticed, researched, and listened to jazz, such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane, but I agree with their inclusion. We all (whom I knew) had begun reading James Baldwin, whom Kaplan may or may not mention (I've never got around to Norman Mailer, I admit guiltily, whom he does mention more than once) and Mary MacCarthy, both of my parents' generation, whose best known books came just before and after 1959. We picked up an early part of Catch-22, also of the bumper crop of 1962, perhaps as early as 1959, in the annual New World Writing (as "Catch-19", if I recall correctly). Everything about Partisan Review was still interesting to us. I am a re-reader; in 1959 I was still re-reading Lionel Trilling's The Liberal Imagination and Edmund Wilson's Memoirs of Hecate County. I never have finished reading Burroughs' The Naked Lunch, probably because drug experience doesn't interest me. Even more exciting was the quality achieved by stereo pick-ups and discs by 1959. I remember comparing Beethoven 3rd Piano Concerto recordings in stereo hardly able to decide between them. Though some of the early releases in stereo had to be criticized as too "ping-pong", it was delightful to hear 1st and 2nd violins, for example, as if responding to each other. Recordings of Gabrieli echoing all over S. Marco basilica were of course very popular. I remember 1959 as a year when stereo recording was still fresh and exhilarating.
Permit me to remember the academic year 1958-1959 as a whole. In the summer of 1958 I had a grant for a seminar in New York City, my first trip out of California. I stayed at Columbia's International House, near the Riverside Church, both for economy and the ease of breakfast and dinner in its good cafeteria and because the seminar was up at 155th Street; also, if I wanted to go to the Metropolitan Museum, or indeed all the way to the Morgan Library or even the Brooklyn Museum, the #1 subway line or the #4 bus was right there as well. Apart from my studies, which were wonderful for me, though I was not quite prepared for them, I met persons I had known only from their books and articles (my professors at Berkeley being their coaevals and colleagues), I met the other members of the seminar, my age but educated in a variety of other environments, and at the I-House a Conservative Jewish young woman who was struggling with anorexia aggravated by kosher laws that she both wanted to break and couldn't break. I think her father had put her in I-House to separate her from her twin sister and to take her away from the Bronx for a while. I enjoyed knowing them both. Sometimes, with her, I went downtown and dined in non-meat cafeterias. Sometimes her father took us both to dinner at regular restaurants. We went to a yiddish theater. I have never forgotten them. As a northern Californian I had known many Jews, of course, but mostly Reformed or non-observant. New York was different. Most of the time, though, Monday through Friday, and sometimes weekends, I was studying, at the museums, at the Metropolitan Museum library, at the Avery Library. Paradise.
Then, back at Berkeley, I was advanced to candidacy for a Ph.D., by completing three day-long written exams, my languages exams, and the remainder of the course requirements. I won a fellowship to study in Greece and was accepted to become a member of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. I began gathering material for a dissertation so that while there I could make progress on it. In the end I was at Athens for two years, so that is for another posting.
I stayed, till my ship, the Nea Yorkê, should sail from Manhattan's westside docks, for several days with a friend of the stepmother of my roommate, Marya, at her apartment overlooking the East River and wandered around the NYC German Town centered on E 86th and elsewhere. Just then, in June of 1959, the New York Times reported, several original Greek bronze statues had just been discovered in a warehouse where they'd lain buried, covered by the destroyed warehouse, since they were not, as it happened, shipped off to Rome. These were, of course, the soon famous Athena, the two Artemis statues, and the bronze Kouros of Piraeus. That Fall, with G. M. A. Richter accompanying us, the members of the School saw the Kouros in his distilled water bath as his earthen core was painstakingly removed and studied. There are, you see, events more exciting to a 25-year-old from California than anything in Kaplan's database.
Before I even got to Athens I stopped for nearly a week in Paris, where I fell in love, unalterably in love, with the Louvre, then for a couple of days in Milan (I wanted to see Sant' Ambrogio!), then for a week or more in Rome, where I stayed at the American Academy on the Janiculum and walked my legs off every day. Rome is inexhaustible. Finally I took the train to Brindisi so as to take the ship to Patras and through the Corinth Canal to Piraeus and up to Kolonaki. My trunk, shipped straight to Athens, yes, was awaiting me, and the School's Mr. Sakkas went with me to Piraeus to get it out of Customs. That was the beginning of what became my intermittent other life, life in the School in Greece.
I have written this Essay out of order, but I wanted to write out, so far as I could in one sitting straight into the computer, what remembering 1959 actually meant to me.
In sum, Kaplan is right. 1959 was the summation of the later 1950s. Only, for each group of us, and for each one of us, it was differently so. For me it was the year when my Alma Mater's gift to me came to a fruition, and the living in Europe and the seeing what I saw, which I had wondered whether I ever could do, actually was enabled. Later, during holidays from the School in Athens I also visited Germany and Sicily and, as the Ely picnic shows, returned to visit my sister's family, too. That's 4 1/2 days on the line of the Orient Express (but not that train!). There is nothing like trains for seeing country.