A Century of Reading: The 10 Books That Defined the 1950s
We Have Reached the Halfway Mark of This Series
Some books are flashes in the pan, read for entertainment and then left on a bus seat for the next lucky person to pick up and enjoy, forgotten by most after their season has passed. Others stick around, are read and re-read, are taught and discussed. sometimes due to great artistry, sometimes due to luck, and sometimes because they manage to recognize and capture some element of the culture of the time.
In the moment, you often can’t tell which books are which. The Great Gatsby wasn’t a bestseller upon its release, but we now see it as emblematic of a certain American sensibility in the 1920s. Of course, hindsight can also distort the senses; the canon looms and obscures. Still, over the next weeks, we’ll be publishing a list a day, each one attempting to define a discrete decade, starting with the 1900s (as you’ve no doubt guessed by now) and counting down until we get to the (nearly complete) 2010s.
Though the books on these lists need not be American in origin, I am looking for books that evoke some aspect of American life, actual or intellectual, in each decade—a global lens would require a much longer list. And of course, varied and complex as it is, there’s no list that could truly define American life over ten or any number of years, so I do not make any claim on exhaustiveness. I’ve simply selected books that, if read together, would give a fair picture of the landscape of literary culture for that decade—both as it was and as it is remembered. Finally, two process notes: I’ve limited myself to one book for author over the entire 12-part list, so you may see certain works skipped over in favor of others, even if both are important (for instance, I ignored Dubliners in the 1910s so I could include Ulysses in the 1920s), and in the case of translated work, I’ll be using the date of the English translation, for obvious reasons.
J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
Whether you consider Holden an egotistical whiner or a melancholy boy genius, and even if you really, really hate it, there’s no denying that this novel, which has sold more than 65 million copies since its publication (though this number is a few years old and certainly soft), and continues to sell at a healthy clip, was a crucial cultural touchstone in America in the 1950s. David Shields and Shane Salerno go further in the introduction to their biography Salinger, writing that the book “redefined postwar America and can best be understood as a disguised war novel.”
Salinger emerged from the war incapable of believing in the heroic, noble ideals we like to think our cultural institutions uphold. Instead of producing a combat novel, as Norman Mailer, James Jones, and Joseph Heller did, Salinger took the trauma of war and embedded it within what looked to the naked eye like a coming-of-age novel.
It may have even influenced the way we think about teenagers to this day. “It absolutely speaks to that moment the teenager emerges as a recognizable social group,” Salinger scholar Sarah Graham told the BBC. “Before that people went through their teenage years with no sense it was a particular kind of identity. It is the first novel of the modern teenage years.” Indeed, it was only after WWII that a distinctive youth culture began to emerge: in part because more teenagers were in high school and fewer were working to support their families. They had time on their hands and angst in their hearts. “Leisure gave teenagers time to reflect on where they were going,” Dr. Graham said. “The idea of existential angst in some way draws from Catcher in the Rye as much as the novel reflects it. There is a strong dialogue between the book and the teenage experience—they are mutually shaping.” As Adam Golub has pointed out, Holden was the first teenager Americans really knew who refused to grow up, and was celebrated for it. This of course despite the fact that Salinger did not at all write the book for teenagers, and that it was well received—called “brilliant” by reviewer after reviewer—as a novel for adults.
Famously, the contemporary hype around Catcher was so great that it forced Salinger into the reclusiveness he’s now known for—he was looking, primarily, for privacy, and didn’t mind perpetuating a myth around himself in the process.
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me,” Ellison writes in the opening lines of this much-read, much-assigned, and highly influential novel. (So influential that President Obama modeled Dreams of My Father on it.) The novel was awarded the National Book Award in 1953. In his acceptance speech, Ellison said: “If I were asked in all seriousness just what I considered to be the chief significance of Invisible Man as a fiction, I would reply: Its experimental attitude and its attempt to return to the mood of personal moral responsibility for democracy which typified the best of our nineteenth-century fiction.”
When I examined the rather rigid concepts of reality which informed a number of the works which impressed me and to which I owed a great deal, I was forced to conclude that for me and for so many hundreds of thousands of Americans, reality was simply far more mysterious and uncertain, and at the same time more exciting, and still, despite its raw violence and capriciousness, more promising.
To see America with an awareness of its rich diversity and its almost magical fluidity and freedom I was forced to conceive of a novel unburdened by the narrow naturalism which has led after so many triumphs to the final and unrelieved despair which marks so much of our current fiction. I was to dream of a prose which was flexible, and swift as American change is swift, confronting the inequalities and brutalities of our society forthrightly, but yet thrusting forth its images of hope, human fraternity, and individual self-realization. A prose which would make use of the richness of our speech, the idiomatic expression, and the rhetorical flourishes from past periods which are still alive among us. Despite my personal failures there must be possible a fiction which, leaving sociology and case histories to the scientists, can arrive at the truth about the human condition, here and now, with all the bright magic of the fairy tale.
The novel manages to be many things at once; this is one of its many strengths. “Evenhandedly exposing the hypocrisies and stereotypes of all comers,” Lev Grossman wrote in TIME, “Invisible Man is far more than a race novel, or even a bildungsroman. It’s the quintessential American picaresque of the 20th century.”
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
Fahrenheit 451 is one of those books we all think we understand—probably because we’ve all had to “analyze” it in high school—but even its author wavered on the point. In a 1956 radio interview, Bradbury explained it in the context of government censorship:
I wrote this book at a time when I was worried about the way things were going in this country four years ago. Too many people were afraid of their shadows; there was a threat of book burning. Many of the books were being taken off the shelves at that time. And of course, things have changed a lot in four years. Things are going back in a very healthy direction. But at the time I wanted to do some sort of story where I could comment on what would happen to a country if we let ourselves go too far in this direction, where then all thinking stops, and the dragon swallows his tail, and we sort of vanish into a limbo and we destroy ourselves by this sort of action.
When asked in 2005 what inspired the book burning in the novel, Bradbury had a pithier response: “Well, Hitler of course.”
When I was fifteen, he burnt the books in the streets of Berlin. Then along the way I learned about the libraries in Alexandria burning five thousand years ago. That grieved my soul. Since I’m self-educated, that means my educators—the libraries—are in danger. And if it could happen in Alexandria, if it could happen in Berlin, maybe it could happen somewhere up ahead, and my heroes would be killed.
He also spoke against McCarthyism in his lifetime, and the novel has frequently been interpreted of a criticism of the same, but in later life Bradbury denied this and claimed that it was “a story about how television destroys interest in reading literature,” despite the fact that television was relatively new at the time, just becoming popular. Whatever it means, it remains an enduring classic.
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (1954)
Initial reviews were mixed when the first volume of Tolkien’s fantasy epic was first published, but the ones that knew, really knew. None other than W. H. Auden reviewed the book in the Times, praising Tolkien’s The Hobbit as “one of the best children’s stories of this century” and writing of his new volume for adults:
On the primitive level of wanting to know what happens next, The Fellowship of the Ring is at least as good as The Thirty-Nine Steps. . . . [But] if one is to take a tale of this kind seriously, one must feel that, however superficially unlike the world we live in its characters and events may be, it nevertheless holds up the mirror to the only nature we know, our own; in this, too, Mr. Tolkien has succeeded superbly, and what happened in the year of the Shire 1418 in the Third Age of Middle Earth is not only fascinating in A. D. 1954 but also a warning and an inspiration. No fiction I have read in the last five years has given me more joy than The Fellowship of the Ring.
With the second two books (Tolkien originally meant the three books of The Lord of the Rings to be published as a single volume) it steadily gained readership, exploding in popularity particularly in the 1960s with the publication of the paperbacks, and has become one of the best-selling literary works of all time. It is also generally agreed to be the best literary epic ever written, and has had untold influence on the genre ever since its publication. Tolkien’s worlds have been re-immortalized in the songs of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Rush, etc., and more recently drawn out into increasingly unnecessary films (The Hobbit, I’m looking at you). Less widely known were J. R. R. Tolkien’s rap battle skills.
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)
Nabokov’s most famous novel was originally published in Paris (in English) in 1955 by a publisher whose other titles included Until She Screams, Tender Thighs, and There’s a Whip in My Valise, and generally ignored until Graham Greene called it one of the best books of the year. Then it was roundly disparaged and dismissed as trash, and banned by the French government—no wonder that smuggled-in copies were already being sold for $20 a pop when it was finally published in the US by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, kicking off what Nabokov called in his journal “Hurricane Lolita.” As Steve King writes:
Within four days of publication in the U.S. the book was into a third printing; by September 13th it had become the first book since Gone with the Wind to sell 100,000 copies in its first three weeks; by the end of September, it was #1 on the bestseller lists. By the time Nabokov appeared on the cover of Newsweek in 1962, it seemed that the only one who hadn’t read the book was Groucho Marx, who quipped, “I plan to put off reading Lolita for six years, until she’s eighteen.”
Since then, of course, the novel—along with its eponymous character—has become iconic, though more contemporary readers understand the way the image of Humbert’s nymphet has been twisted as the years have worn on. “With the possible exception of Gatsby, no twentieth-century American literary character penetrated the public consciousness quite like Lolita,” Ira Wells noted in The New Republic.
Her very name entered the language as a common noun: “a precociously seductive girl,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. (Gatsby, by contrast, had to settle for a mere adjective: “Gatsbyesque.”) . . . [But] we have forgotten Lolita. At least, we’ve forgotten about the young girl, “standing four feet ten in one sock,” whose childhood deprivation and brutalization and torture subliminally animate the myth that launched a thousand music videos. The publication, reception, and cultural re-fashioning of Lolita over the past 60 years is the story of how a twelve-year-old rape victim named Dolores became a dominant archetype for seductive female sexuality in contemporary America: It is the story of how a girl became a noun.
But the fact that we’re still talking about, going over the contents and the form and the way its been misunderstood and the way we failed Nabokov and the way Nabokov failed us is only proof of the novel’s significance. It is certainly a book about rape, though it does not invite us to accept rape. It is certainly a book about erotic obsession, though we are meant to pity the obsessed. It is certainly an enduring literary masterpiece.
James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (1955)
All three of Baldwin’s most famous works—Go Tell It On the Mountain, Notes of a Native Son, and Giovanni’s Room—were published in the 50s, the decade that he established himself as an essential intellectual, social, literary, and moral voice in this country. All of these were defining books of the decade, but I’ve chosen to highlight the essay collection above either of the two novels because of Baldwin’s importance as an activist and social critic. That is, with these ten essays, as well as much of his other writing and speaking, he helped haul America into the second half of the twentieth century. We’re not quite there yet, but much of the ground we’ve gained is due to Baldwin. He also influenced a whole generation of American writers. “Speeches will be given, essays written and hefty books will be published on the various lives of James Baldwin,” Maya Angelou wrote after his death.
Some fantasies will be broadcast and even some truths will be told. Someone will speak of the essayist James Baldwin in his role as the biblical prophet Isaiah admonishing his country to repent from wickedness and create within itself a clean spirit and a clean heart. Others will examine Baldwin the playwright and novelist who burned with a righteous indignation over the paucity of kindness, the absence of love and the crippling hypocrisy he saw in the streets of the United States and sensed in the hearts of his fellow citizens. I will speak of James Baldwin, my friend and brother. . . . [who] set the stage for me to write I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, encouraged me to take a course in cinematography in Sweden and told me that I was intelligent and very brave.
Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (1957)
I can’t tell you how much it pains me that Ayn Rand is the only woman on this list. I would love to have replaced her (and/or some of the others here, cough, Kerouac, cough) with Hannah Arendt, or Flannery O’Connor, or Patricia Highsmith, or Barbara Pym. But there’s no denying the influence of Atlas Shrugged on America—horrible and damaging and Paul Ryan-producing as it may be. Atlas Shrugged is Rand’s treatise on Objectivism (read: “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute”), her love letter to capitalism, her libertarian rant, and her magnum opus. It was a bestseller in the week of its release and for 22 weeks in total, and sales rose again after the 2007 financial crisis. It has remained popular among high school students and conservatives (an apparently odd paring, though I can think of a few other qualities that unite them), the former likely in part because the Ayn Rand institute donates 400,000 copies of her novels to high schools every year.
“I know from talking to a lot of Fortune 500 C.E.O.’s that Atlas Shrugged has had a significant effect on their business decisions, even if they don’t agree with all of Ayn Rand’s ideas,” bank executive John A. Allison told The New York Times. “It offers something other books don’t: the principles that apply to business and to life in general. I would call it complete.”
Since its publication it has spurred many, many slobbering tributes that include lines like “Atlas Shrugged has shaped the worldview of many devotees of liberty,” and again, given us Paul Ryan—not to mention Alan Greenspan, who didn’t exactly prevent the recession that readers ran to his idol Ayn Rand to assuage.
Jack Kerouac, On the Road (1957)
“That’s not writing; that’s typing,” said Truman Capote. “It changed my life like it changed everyone else’s,” said Bob Dylan. Whatever you may think of it (and I think it has . . . not held up well), On the Road is without a doubt the most important book, indeed the defining text, of the much-mythologized American “Beat Generation.” It’s not only in retrospect, either—we knew this as soon as the novel was published. “On the Road is the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as “beat,” and whose principal avatar he is,” wrote Gilbert Millstein in his 1957 New York Times review, flying in the face of much critical response at the time. “Just as, more than any other novel of the Twenties, The Sun Also Rises came to be regarded as the testament of the “Lost Generation,” so it seems certain that On the Road will come to be known as that of the “Beat Generation.” He was correct. “After 1957 On The Road sold a trillion Levis and a million espresso coffee machines, and also sent countless kids on the road,” William S. Burroughs once remarked.
This was of course due in part to the media, the arch-opportunists. They know a story when they see one, and the Beat movement was a story, and a big one . . . The Beat literary movement came at exactly the right time and said something that millions of people of all nationalities all over the world were waiting to hear. You can’t tell anybody anything he doesn’t know already. The alienation, the restlessness, the dissatisfaction were already there waiting when Kerouac pointed out the road.
Leon Uris, Exodus (1958)
Upon its publication, this novel, a massive chronicle of the founding of the State of Israel, instantly became a huge international phenomenon. The hardcover was on the New York Times bestseller list for over a year, with a cool 19 weeks in the top spot. The paperback was “the fastest-selling work every published by Bantam,” according to Ira B. Nadel’s Leon Uris: Life of a Best Seller, and by 1965 was among the top 10 bestsellers of all time. The popularity of the novel, and of the 1960 film adaptation, shaped American perception of Israel, immediately after its publication and beyond. As Uris himself said: “My greatest accomplishment is Exodus. It changed peoples lives, it changed the conception of the Jewish people in the international scene.” For his part, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, said: “As a literary work, it isn’t much. But as a piece of propaganda, it’s the greatest thing ever written about Israel.”
The novel, Bradley Burston wrote in Haaretz, “transformed American Jews as no other work has done, before or since . . . it was savaged by critics and academics, and resoundingly ignored by literary prize committees. When the book appeared in 1958, however, it sold in the millions. It was said that it was nearly as common to find a copy of Exodus in American-Jewish households as to find the Bible—and, of the two, not a few Jewish households apparently had only Exodus.”
Needless to say, this American sympathy for Israel and the American Jewish community changed the face of the country and has had lasting effects—both positive and negative, particularly, in the latter case, due to its gross demonization of Arabs. Also, not for nothing, but many Americans could use the reminder that this novel is a work of fiction.
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (1958)
“The genius of Chinua Achebe, like all genius, escapes precise analysis,” Kwame Anthony Appiah wrote in the introduction to a Penguin Classics edition of the text.
If we could explain it fully, we could reproduce it, and it is of the nature of genius to be irreproducible. Still, there has been no shortage of attempts to explain his literary achievement, an achievement that starts with the fact that Things Fall Apart (1958), the first of the novels in his “African trilogy” defined a starting point for the modern African novel. There are, as critics are quick to point out, earlier examples of extended narrative written in and about Africa by African writers. Some of them—Amos Tutuola’s Palm-Wine Drinkard (1952), Cyprian Ekwensi’s People of the City (1954), to name but two also written by Nigerians—remain eminently worth reading. But place them beside the work of Achebe and you will see that in his writing something magnificent and new was going on.
One reason for this, which often passes without notice, is that Achebe solved a problem that these earlier novels did not. He found a way to represent for a global Anglophone audience the diction of his Igbo homeland, allowing readers of English elsewhere to experience a particular relationship to language and the world in a way that made it seem quite natural—transparent, one might almost say. Achebe enables us to hear the voices of Igboland in a new use of our own language. A measure of his achievement is that Achebe found an African voice in English that is so natural its artifice eludes us.
Achebe introduced African literature to the rest of the world—and opened the door for a whole host of African writers in the UK and America, both by his success and as an editor of the African Writers Series, published by Heinemann. His first novel has sold over 20 million copies and been translated into 57 languages, and has been taught ever since its publication as a text essential for understanding decolonization and mid-century Africa.
Isaac Asimov, I, Robot (1950), Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles (1950), Patricia Highsmith, Strangers on a Train (1950), C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950), Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha (first English translation, 1951), Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory (1951), Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time (1951), Isaac Asimov, the Foundation Trilogy (1951-1953), Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952), Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl (first English translation, 1952), Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt (1952), Bernard Malamud, The Natural (1952), Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood (1952), Barbara Pym, Excellent Women (1952), John Steinbeck, East of Eden (1952), Kurt Vonnegut, Piano Player (1952), E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web (1952), Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye (1953), James Baldwin, Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953), Alfred Kinsey, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), Ian Fleming, Casino Royale (1953), Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (1953), Gwendolyn Brooks, Maud Martha (1953), William S. Burroughs, Junky (1953), Arthur Miller, The Crucible (1953), J. D. Salinger, Nine Stories (1953), Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (1954), William Golding, Lord of the Flies (1954), Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems (1954), Richard Matheson, I Am Legend (1954), Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), J. P. Donleavy, The Ginger Man (1955), Graham Greene, The Quiet American (1955), The Guinness Book of Records (1955), Françoise Sagan, Bonjour Tristesse (first English translation 1955), Flannery O’Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories (1955), John Ashbery, Some Trees (1956), Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals (1956), Dodie Smith, The Hundred and One Dalmatians (1956), James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room (1956), Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems (1956), John Cheever, The Wapshot Chronicle (1957), Roland Barthes, Mythologies (1957), Dr. Seuss, The Cat in the Hat (1957), Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Towards Freedom (1957), Bernard Malamud, The Assistant (1957), Nevil Shute, On the Beach (1957), Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin (1957), Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago (first English translation 1958), Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958), Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana (1958), Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums (1958), Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask (first English translation, 1958), Americo Paredes, With His Pistol in His Hand (1958), T. H. White, The Once and Future King (1958), Robert Bloch, Psycho (1959), Günter Grass, The Tin Drum (1959), Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus (1959), Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun (1959), William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch (1959), Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House (1959), John Knowles, A Separate Peace (1959), Strunk & White, The Elements of Style (1959), D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover (unexpurgated U.S. version released 1959)