The Century Project: Fiction, 1900-1999, Pt. 7: The 1960s
--by Hanje Richards
The Century Project: Part 7, Fiction from the 1960s
The Copper Queen Library is the oldest continuously-operating public library in Arizona. I often tell visitors this fact, and it got me thinking… We have intentionally kept a lot of older books here in our lovely old building. We have a lot of books that were published in the early years of the 1900s, as well as mid-century books and titles all the way to the end of the century still on our shelves.
Our blogs and displays often focus on the new and contemporary, but what about all the history reflected by the books in this wonderful 100+ year old building?
Here are some of the books from our collection published in the 1960s that have become classics:
The Agony and the Ecstasy (Irving Stone) – This 1961 “biographical novel” is the story of Michelangelo and, more broadly, the story of the Italian Renaissance in all its glory. Through Michelangelo's eyes, one gets a full feeling for Florence and Rome at the time. Stone paints with a broad brush the stories of wars, feuding princes, religious machinations, and the wonderful art that the Renaissance produced... and illustrates the struggle that is necessary to create. Stone imagines the creation of just about every major work of Michelangelo’s art – the struggles with family, princes, popes and other artists to get his designs accepted – and, finally, the glory of a life well lived as the artist dies leaving a truly monumental body of work behind.
The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath) - Writer and poet Sylvia Plath's only novel, which was originally published in 1963 under the pseudonym “Victoria Lucas,” is semi-autobiographical, with the names of places and people changed. The book is often regarded as a roman à clef, with the protagonist's descent into mental illness paralleling Plath's own experiences with what may have been clinical depression. Plath committed suicide at the age of 31 a month after its first UK publication.
Catch 22 (Joseph Heller) – This 1961 novel, set in 1943 during World War II, is frequently cited as one of the great literary works of the twentieth century. It has a distinctive non-chronological style where events are described from different characters' points of view and out of sequence so that the time line develops along with the plot. The novel follows Yossarian, a U.S. Army Air Force B-25 bombardier, and a number of other characters. Most events occur while the Airmen of the fictional 256th squadron are based on the island of Pianosa, in the Mediterranean Sea west of Italy.
The Godfather (Mario Puzo) - This crime novel, published in 1969, details the story of a fictitious Sicilian Mafia family based in New York City (and Long Beach, NY) and headed by Don Vito Corleone, who became synonymous with the Italian Mafia. The novel covers the years 1945-1955 and also provides the back story of Vito Corleone from early childhood to adulthood. Large parts of the novel are based upon reality – notably the history of the so-called 'Five Families,' the Mafia-organization in New York and the surrounding area – and the novel also includes many allusions to real-life mobsters and their associates, with Johnny Fontane based on Frank Sinatra and Moe Greene on Bugsy Siegel, for example.
The Golden Notebook (Doris Lessing) – This 1962 novel explores mental and societal breakdown. Interlacing a conventional novel with journal entries written by one of the characters, this is is the story of writer Anna Wulf, the four notebooks in which she keeps the record of her life, and her attempt to tie them all together in a fifth, gold-colored notebook. The notebooks reflect various aspects of Anna's personal and political upheavals, including powerful anti-war and anti-Stalinist messages, an extended analysis of communism and the Communist Party in England from the 1930s to the 1950s, and a famed examination of the budding sexual and women's liberation movements.
In Cold Blood (Truman Capote) - This first-of-its-kind “nonfiction novel,” originally serialized in four installments in The New Yorker in 1965 and published in book form in 1966, details the brutal 1959 real-life murders of Herbert Clutter, a successful farmer from Kansas, his wife, and two of their four children. When Capote learned of the quadruple murder (before the killers were captured), he decided to travel to Kansas and write about the crime. He was accompanied by his childhood friend and fellow author Harper Lee, and together they interviewed local residents and investigators assigned to the case and took thousands of pages of notes. The killers, Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Smith, were arrested not long after the murders, and Capote ultimately spent six years working on the book (until Smith and Hickock were executed, providing closure and a conclusion for the novel).
The Moviegoer (Walker Percy) – Published in 1961, this novel introduces Percy's concept of the “malaise,” the angst of the lucid man in a world without gods, by telling the story of Binx Bolling, a young stock-broker in postwar New Orleans. The decline of southern US tradition, the problems of his family, and his traumatic experiences in the Korean War have left him alienated from his own life. He daydreams constantly, has trouble engaging in lasting relationships, and finds more meaning and immediacy in movies and books than in his own routine life. The loose plot of the novel follows Binx as he embarks on an undefined “search,” wandering around New Orleans, Chicago and the Gulf Coast reflecting philosophically on small episodes and interactions. He is constantly challenged to define himself in relation to friends, family, sweethearts and career despite his urge to remain vague and open to possibility.
Portnoy’s Complaint (Philip Roth) – This novel, which The New Yorker greeted as “one of the dirtiest books ever published” (and aptly published in 1969), features Alexander Portnoy's stream-of-consciousness outpouring to his psychiatrist about the emasculating conflict between his overactive libido and his equally overactive neuroses. Portnoy exemplifies that second generation of Jewish-American urban men, born between the onslaught of the Great Depression and the end of WWII – those self-tortured high achievers whose sacrificing parents gave them their tremendous drive, their equally tremendous guilt, and a life-saving self-deprecating humor..
Slaughterhouse Five (Kurt Vonnegut) - Ranked the “18th Greatest English Novel of the 20th Century” by Modern Library, Slaughterhouse Five is generally recognized as Vonnegut's most influential and popular work – a satirical novel published in 1969 about the World War II experiences and “journeys through time” of Chaplain's Assistant Billy Pilgrim, a disoriented, fatalistic, and ill-trained American soldier who does not like war.
Stranger in a Strange Land (Robert Heinlein) - “The most famous Science Fiction novel ever written,” this 1961 story tells the tale of Valentine Michael Smith, a human who has come to Earth in early adulthood after being born on the planet Mars and raised in the culture of the Martian natives, beings with full control over their minds and bodies. The son of astronauts from the first expedition to the planet Mars and orphaned after the deaths of the entire crew, Smith is rescued by a second expedition to the planet some twenty years later and brought “home” to Earth, where many human concepts – religion, war, clothing, and jealousy – are strange to him. Smith understands the concept of God only as "one who groks,” – which includes every living person, plant, and animal – and expresses the Martian concept of the oneness of life as the phrase “Thou art God.” Since he is heir to the fortunes of the entire exploration party, which includes several valuable inventions, Smith becomes a political pawn in government struggles.
To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee) – This 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is loosely based on Lee’s observations of her family and neighbors, as well as on an event that happened near her home town in 1936, when she was 10 years old. The novel is renowned for its warmth and humor, despite dealing with the serious issues of rape and racial inequality. The narrator's father, Atticus Finch, has served as a moral hero for many readers and as a model of integrity for lawyers.
Where the Wild Things Are (Maurice Sendak) – This 1963 children’s picture book tells the story of Max, who one evening plays around his home “making mischief" in a wolf costume. As punishment, his mother sends him to bed without supper. In his room, a mysterious, wild forest and sea grow out of his imagination, and Max sails to the Land of the Wild Things. The Wild Things are fearsome-looking monsters, but Max conquers them by “staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once,” and he is made “The King of All Wild Things,” dancing with the monsters in a “wild rumpus.” However, he soon finds himself lonely and homesick and returns to his bedroom where he finds his supper waiting for him – still hot.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Edward Albee) – In this 1962 Tony Award-winning play, George and Martha invite a new professor and his wife to their house after a party. Martha is the daughter of the president of the college where George is an associate history professor. Nick is a biology professor, and Honey is his mousy, brandy-abusing wife. Once at home, Martha and George continue drinking and engage in relentless, scathing verbal and sometimes physical abuse in front of Nick and Honey. The younger couple are simultaneously fascinated and embarrassed. They stay even though the abuse turns periodically towards them as well.