1958: The War of the Intellectuals

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Much has been made of 1968 — the student uprisings in Paris, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the full flowering of youth culture. But what of its more unassuming antecedent, 1958? Fifty years ago, Eisenhower was in the White House, the country was in a recession and the American intellectual scene was crackling with energy.

The year 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. ...

It’s hard to generalize about any historical moment, but in the intellectual journals of the era, some central themes emerge: a debate over the merits of the Beat movement, and the attempt by some influential critics to preserve the quickly dissolving distinctions among highbrow, middlebrow and lowbrow culture that had previously held sway. At the same time, the distinction between artistic achievement and commercial success, which American intellectuals had long assumed to be mutually exclusive, was losing its hold.

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