WASHINGTON -- Fifty years ago, on July 21, 1959, Grove Press won permission to publish D.H. Lawrence's novel "Lady Chatterley's Lover." Two days later, G.D. Searle, the pharmaceutical company, sought government approval for Enovid, the birth control pill. These two events, both welcome, were, however, pebbles that presaged the avalanche that swept away America's culture of restraint and reticence.
That change is recounted by Fred Kaplan, an MIT Ph.D. and cultural historian, in "1959: The Year Everything Changed," an intelligent book with a silly subtitle. There never has been a year -- or a decade, century or even millennium, for that matter -- in which everything changed. There are numerous constants in the human condition, including (and because of) human nature. Furthermore, pick a year, any year, in the last, say, 250 and you will find it pregnant with consequential births and battles, inventions and publications that made modernity.
Besides, one reason America got into so many messes after 9/11 was the disorienting mantra that on that day "everything changed." Still, consider how much 1959 did incubate.
Until into the 1940s, it had been a crime in Massachusetts to sell Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy," in which Roberta loses her innocence to a factory foreman. In 1948, the Supreme Court affirmed a New York court's judgment against Doubleday for publishing Edmund Wilson's novel "Memoirs of Hecate County," which depicted an extramarital affair. In 1957, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of a bookseller for mailing obscene materials, saying that constitutional protection of free speech did not extend to obscenity, as determined by the Department of the Post Office, which had its own judiciary.
The court said, however, that the test of obscenity was "whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to prurient interest." And to be obscene, material must be "utterly without redeeming social importance."
So, would Lawrence's novel be judged both prurient and worthless? Barney Rosset of Grove decided to find out by alerting the post office of his intention to import some copies from Europe. The post office impounded them. Then a court abolished restraints on sending them through the mail. Within weeks the novel was a best-seller, as was Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita." Four months after the United States slipped the leash of Earth's gravity by putting a satellite into orbit around the sun, social restraints, too, were being shed.