As hard as it might be to believe, the 1950s were nearly seventy years ago! Perhaps equally hard to believe is the number of books published during that decade that people still read, study in schools, discuss, and even make into movies in the 21st century. Let’s take a look at a few of the books from the Eisenhower years of Red Scares, Leave It to Beaver families, the Korean Conflict, and the early stirrings of the Civil Rights movement.
J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, the story of 16-year-old Holden Caulfield’s frustration with the shallowness and fakery of US society, tops most lists I found of the influential books from the decade. Several other authors also wrote scathingly about US society, including Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man, detailing the African American experience in America. James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son is a book of essays forming a memoir of the author’s life in Europe and the US. People still read both of these authors’ works today and their writing is as relevant in 2023 as it was when they were first published. Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain is a semi-autobiographical novel featuring a young teenager, John Grimes, and his relationships with his family and church. For me, Invisible Man is by far the most memorable of these books, but they are all worth your time.
Ray Bradbury, Jack Kerouac, and Vladimir Nabokov wrote critically about society. Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 explored censorship, an issue perhaps more divisive today than when the book was written. Kerouac and Nabokov created sweeping stories of the American road and society in On the Road and Lolita. All of these books are probably familiar to most well-read Americans today and are certainly still worth reading in 2023. Personally, I enjoyed all three. And take note: Lolita is about so much more than the famous girl of the title and her infamous “suitor,” Humbert Humbert. Nabokov’s description of America in the 50s is fabulous.
Foreign writers prominent in US literary circles in the ‘50s included African Chinua Achebe, whose Things Fall Apart was one of the first African novels to receive worldwide attention from critics for its depiction of the European colonialism of Nigeria in the late 1800s. It’s a powerful, disturbing novel. Perhaps the best-known–and one of the most-loved–books to appear in the US during the decade was Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, which was first published in English in 1952. Anne’s themes of growing up, evil and good, and her place in a world at war still resonates with millions of new readers every year. As an English teacher, I taught the dramatized version of Anne’s diary and every year students learned more about the threats of radicalism through her story. Sadly, many people find some of what Anne wrote challenging or offensive, so I encourage you to read the Definitive Edition to judge for yourself.
Live on stage and on the big screen
Four plays are still produced regularly today. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, ostensibly about the Salem witchcraft trials but more importantly an allegory about the McCarthy witch hunts which destroyed many lives, lives on in high school classrooms across the nation. A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansbury, is concerned with still-relevant topics of racism and housing discrimination. Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men, with its depiction of a jury deciding a young man’s fate while dealing with racism and prejudice, sees new life on high school stages every year. Finally, Tennessee Williams gave us the Pulitzer Prize-winning Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which has seen many productions and revivals on stage and screen. If you’re interested, you can find versions of these plays to see live seven decades after they were written.
Science fiction and fantasy
In the middle of the last century, science fiction fans devoured Isaac Asimov’s short story collection I, Robot, and fantasy devotees journeyed to Middle-earth in J.R.R. Tolkien’s eternally popular trilogy Lord of the Rings, published in 1954 and 1955, to meet Gandalf, Frodo, Sam, Pippin, Legolas, Boromir, and, of course, Gollum. I don’t need to say any more about the continuing popularity of those unforgettable characters, do I?
Something for the kids in all of us
As for children’s books, Dr. Seuss published The Cat in the Hat in 1957, and the all-time bestselling children’s paperback, E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web is undoubtedly on the bookshelves of most American homes even now. In 1950, the first volume of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia novels, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, was published, delighting young readers with the adventures of the Pevensie children. If you haven’t yet read these books to or with your children, you’re both in for a wonderful treat! No children? No problem! Charlotte’s Web in particular teaches lessons about love and loyalty that anyone can enjoy.
A final word
In most popular depictions, the 1950s were a decade of peace and prosperity, safety and promise in the U.S. However, the advent of the Cold War, the USSR’s launch of Sputnik, and the slow boil of the Civil Rights movement rising to national consciousness with the Brown vs Board of Education decision showed that all was not as it seemed for everyone. In many ways, the writers of the decade were already attempting to come to terms with the upheaval that would explode with the arrival of the 1960s.
If you’re interested in more information about the literature I have described, the following websites are helpful: A Century of Reading: The 10 Books That Defined the 1950s ‹ Literary Hub; 25 Famous Books From The 1950s | The Uncorked Librarian; and
20 Classic American Books Published in the 1950s. Salina Public Library carries most of these books, and if it’s not here, we can get them for you through the Interlibrary Loan. And they’re all free!
I’d love to know which of these books you’ve read or want to read. Which ones did you enjoy the most? Why? Are there others on the sites above I should have noted? And finally, what books from the 2020s might people still be reading 70 years from now, in–hold your breath for this!–the 2090s?