Culture Magazine

1957, the Magic Year, Oh Those Crazy Russkies!

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Sam Tanenhaus,Three Blockbuster Novels From the 1950s, and Their Remarkable Afterlife, The New York Times, Sept. 12, 2018:
“Listen now,” an NBC radio announcer declared in October 1957, “for the sound which forever more separates the old from the new.” The sound was the beep-beep of the radio signal emitted by Sputnik, the first satellite sent into space, as it streaked on its elliptical path at a surreal velocity of 18,000 miles per hour. The Russians’ early conquest of space came as a shock — “perhaps the darkest hour of the Cold War,” one historian has written — but it was also an exciting communal moment: Americans stumbled out of bed to watch “the sunlit speck sweep across the predawn sky,” Time reported, “as steady in its orbit as the made-by-nature moon.”
The “space race” was a competition, but with only two rivals — “us” and “them.” And this odd partnership, or dance, spilled over into realms of the imagination, particularly the novel. In the aftermath of Sputnik three towering and best-selling works of fiction by dissident Russians — “Atlas Shrugged,” “Lolita” and “Doctor Zhivago” — were published in quick succession, crowded into an 11-month span, from October 1957 to September 1958. Today, all three still live on, each a universe in itself, read and discussed — and fought over — as if written not in prose but in hieroglyphics or code.
Published less than a week after the Sputnik launch, “Atlas Shrugged” was the crowning work of Ayn Rand, a Jewish émigré from St. Petersburg (born Alissa Rosenbaum) who had gone to Hollywood in the 1920s, taking with her scenarios even Cecil B. DeMille’s story department deemed far-fetched. It was there that she developed an almost militant faith in capitalism. Her novel “The Fountainhead,” published in 1943, though panned by reviewers, became a word-of-mouth sales triumph and then a film starring Gary Cooper as a visionary architect modeled on Frank Lloyd Wright.
I've long picked out 1957 as an important year. Northrop Frye published his Anatomy of Criticism and Noam Chomsky published Syntactic Structures, both important in my intellectual life. But not at the time, of course, for I was only 10 years old. But I do remember Sputnik: "One evening in the fall of 1957 my father took me outside. He pointed up to the sky and said “That’s Sputnik.” I’m not sure I saw the (moving) speck of light he was pointing to but I believed him. Yes, there was Sputnik up there in the sky. A man-made object going around the earth."
I don't think I've ever read Atlas Shrugged, though I might have. More likely I read The Fountainhead, but long afterward in the mid-1980s (and to please a young woman). Though come to think of it, it may have been The Fountainhead; I don't really know. All I remember is that it was a big fat book and it went by quickly. 
In any event, I was only 10 in 1957, too young to read be interested in such stories. But there was a period in the 1960s when I read some of Rand's philosophical prose and took it quite seriously. She may have had an interview in Playboy as well. 
I read Lolita in college, in a course on the autobiographical novel taught by Richard Macksey.
I've never read Dr. Zhivago, though I may well have seen the film. I can hear "Lara's Theme" in my mind's ear right now.
Back to the NYTimes article:
If Rand and Pasternak were fabulists dabbling in realism, Nabokov was the opposite, a literary magician, with a dandy’s lush prose style, whose story was based on a shockingly thorough knowledge of facts on the ground. In her new book, “The Real Lolita,” Sarah Weinman maps the parallels between Humbert’s case and one true-crime episode mentioned in “Lolita,” the abduction of a fifth grader by a 50-year-old pedophile in Camden, N.J., who fled with her on a cross-country spree. But that was just one story among many in what later came to be called the “postwar sex crime panic.” Ordinary readers were well-versed in such stories. They were staples of the so-called family magazines. A cover story in The American Magazine in 1947 — when much of “Lolita” takes place — was “How Safe Is Your Daughter?” Not safe at all, according to the author, the F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover. “The most rapidly increasing type of crime is that perpetrated by degenerate sex offenders,” he wrote, going on to offer a selection, complete with lurid details, of a nationwide binge of rape and pedophilia, a “criminal assault every 43 minutes, day and night, across the United States.” There was, for instance, the case of the 17-year-old jailed on a sex charge who “three weeks after his release lured an 11-year-old girl to an open field, where his brutal attacks ended in the murder of the child.” Another family magazine, Collier’s, published a series, “Terror in Our Cities.” And there was more in the daily press — tales of grown men who plied underage girls with “sodas and sundaes,” teenage sex rings involving girls as young as 13 (all “said to be from good families”).
What was surprising, in 1958 no less than today, was the indifference of the nation’s most sophisticated readers, its literary critics, to the connection between Humbert’s ensnared “lover” and “the real Lolitas who exist in darkness throughout their lives,” as The New Republic pointed out in an editorial. It was the familiar story of clueless elites, and it rested on intellectual complicity.
On anxiety and social panic, see my series of posts on Dana Boyd's It's Complicated: The Social Life of Networked Teens. On Lolita, see Nabakov's "Lolita" and an example of ethical criticism.

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