THE IDEA OF FOCUSING on a single year for research, or for study, or in an attempt to make a year illustrative of a whole era is slightly bonkers, but at the same time it can be very useful as well as extremely entertaining. It’s bonkers because it’s so arbitrary, and involves the problem of overlap, a problem that also applies to decades and even centuries — a problem that the historian Eric Hobsbawm cleverly (and brazenly) sidestepped by writing about what he called the “long nineteenth century” (1789–1914) and the “short twentieth century” (1914–1991). You couldn’t really get away with that when it comes to a single year. It would be an offense to numerical neatness.
But this is actually a small price to pay for what, it turns out, are some fabulous single-year books — for example: James Shapiro’s 1599, a brilliant study of a pivotal year in the life of William Shakespeare; Michael A. Bellesiles’s self-explanatory 1877: America’s Year of Living Violently; Tom Lutz’s American Nervousness, 1903; and Kevin Jackson’s even more self-explanatory Constellation of Genius 1922: Modernism and All That Jazz. This same year is also examined in Sarah Churchwell’s fascinating Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby and Michael North’s Reading 1922. Skip ahead five years and we have Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America, 1927. Then there is Fred Kaplan’s 1959: The Year Everything Changed, Christopher Bray’s recent 1965: The Year Modern Britain Was Born, and Mark Kurlansky’s 1968: The Year That Rocked the World. There are novels, too, like Gore Vidal’s 1876, John Dos Passos’s 1919, George Orwell’s 1984, and David Peace’s epic contribution to the genre, 1974, 1977, 1980, 1983 and GB84. There is also, maybe, Murakami’s 1Q84. (And does Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 count, I wonder?)
Anyway, there are many more, and you could probably find a reason to write extensively about (and mentally colonize) almost any year you care to mention. The years 1848, 1908, 1913, 1948, 1979, 1989, 2001, and 2008 all have volumes written about them, some a half-dozen or more. It could even become an exciting new game or app, one based on a meticulous cataloging of all the incredible things that happened during a particular year.
Why was I thinking so hard about this? I was doing research for a novel, a task that is often compared, usually by novelists, to falling down the proverbial rabbit hole. Once you start, especially with a high-speed internet connection, there will be no end to your descent and no turning back. I was interested in the year 1953, so I started, innocently enough, by looking at old photographs, including several by Vivian Maier, whose work — stunning, vivid, eerie — is an almost direct portal to that time, to the people and streets of New York and Chicago.
Then — nice work if you can get it — I revisited a selection of old favorites from 1953: movies (Pickup on South Street, Shane, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, How to Marry a Millionaire, Roman Holiday) and novels (The Long Goodbye, Junky, The Adventures of Augie March, Fahrenheit 451, Casino Royale). After this, I looked at what was going on in 1953, politically, socially, in science and medicine … and it was then that I realized I was stuck in a one-way time machine, and was NEVER COMING BACK …
In that key year between the end of the Second World War and the start of the New Frontier, Eisenhower and Nixon entered the White House, the Rosenbergs were executed, Mossadegh was overthrown in Iran, Stalin died, Crick and Watson discovered the double-helix structure of DNA, REM was first identified, and Dr. Jonas Salk found a vaccine for polio. There was the first Playboy, the first color TV, the first televised Oscars, the first scaling of Everest. Aldous Huxley took mescaline and Elizabeth Windsor took the throne. Jack and Jackie got married. Waiting for Godot was first performed, as was The Crucible, and Frank Sinatra first worked with Nelson Riddle.
That’s some of the big, obvious stuff, but there’s plenty of smaller stuff too. For example, this was the year that a young Lee Harvey Oswald — according to Don DeLillo in the opening line of Libra — “rode the subway to the ends of the city, two hundred miles of track.” During this year, as a patient at Youth House in New York, Oswald may also have been the subject of a series of psychological “experiments,” including electroshock therapy, and the Rorschach and Bender-Gestalt Tests. This is according to H. P. Albarelli in his book A Secret Order (2013). Another of Albarelli’s books, A Terrible Mistake (2009), tells the disturbing tale of Frank Olson, a US Army biochemist who, in November 1953, was surreptitiously dosed with LSD as part of the CIA mind-control program, MKULTRA. Days later, Olson fell/jumped/was pushed from a 13th-floor window of the Hotel Statler (now the Hotel Pennsylvania) on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan.
(By the way, I knew that 1953 was mine — mine, I tell you — when I started to experience sharp and irrational pangs of disappointment any time I would track something down from the “early fifties” — a book, movie, or event, say — and it turned out to be from either 1952 or 1954, my deepest disappointment being the 1952 publication of the DSM-I, that seminal treasure trove of 106 “mental reactions.” And it was then I realized that this must be what happens, only much more intensely, to people who write whole books about individual years. You develop a sense of ownership, of possessiveness even, and an accompanying, almost paranoid belief that your year represents nothing less than a sort of unified field theory of everything.)
But back to the theme of hotels — it’s a recurring one in 1953. Dylan Thomas was staying at the Chelsea Hotel in November when he fell into a coma, was rushed to St Vincent’s Hospital, and died. He had just turned 39. In sharp contrast to the Chelsea’s dark image of excess and despair, we also have the Barbizon, a hotel for women on the corner of 63rd and Lexington, “twenty-three floors of warm pink brick and curly flourishes.” The hotel — apparently “a hothouse of pretty, brainy American ingénues” — provided accommodation for hundreds of ambitious, anxious girls who were interested, equally it seems, in books and cosmetics. This is according to Elizabeth Winder in her book Pain, Parties, Work (2013), a charming account of how a young Sylvia Plath spent that summer living at the hotel and guest-editing Mademoiselle magazine. This will be familiar to anyone who has read Plath’s The Bell Jar.
What else happened in 1953? Piltdown Man, the great paleoanthropological “discovery,” was exposed as a hoax. A train crash in Czechoslovakia left more than a hundred people dead. My parents got married. Okay, the thing is, you have to stop somewhere. Because what does it all mean? What is the organizing principle? The hook? In some cases, there’s a fairly obvious hook. Orwell’s 1984 was really an examination of Stalinism in 1948. (And Anthony Burgess’s 1985 was a clear riff on Orwell’s novel.) Gore Vidal’s 1876 (published, natch, in 1976) was a centennial novel for the bicentennial. And history books that focus on certain big-ticket years — 1492, say, or 1945 — don’t really have to justify themselves at all. But in most instances, some work is required, and a convincing case has to be made. Usually, the narrative is that the year in question is a “crucible of change,” or it reaches some kind of “tipping point.” (The title of Ray Huang’s 1587: A Year of No Significance is, of course, ironic, as he shows it was clearly a year of great significance.) In a recent BBC-TV series Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds, Dr. James Fox uses the following pitch to focus on 1908 in Vienna: Adolf Hitler came to town looking to kick-start his career as an artist and may have sat in the city’s famous Café Central alongside Gustav Klimt (who had just painted “The Kiss”), Sigmund Freud (who had just formulated his Oedipus Complex), and Arnold Schoenberg (who had just composed his second string quartet). Fox’s series continues with Paris in 1928, and then New York in — oops — 1951? A little premature, I would have thought. But it’s certainly a thrilling idea, and one that Tom Stoppard used to great effect in his 1974 play Travesties. Here we find Lenin, James Joyce, and Tristan Tzara possibly crossing paths in Zurich in 1917.
Another example (there’s always another one) is Lance Morrow’s gloriously self-explanatory The Best Year of Their Lives: Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon in 1948. One reviewer called the year described in this book “an illuminating historical intersection,” and another referred to it as “a seedbed of history.” Morrow makes a great case for 1948 and even calls it “a tangle of counterfactual possibilities.” For example, if Johnson hadn’t managed to steal the election from Coke Stevenson that year and make it to the Senate, would there have been a Voting Rights Act? Would Vietnam, or Dallas, or even Watergate have happened at all, or in quite the way they did? Morrow gives us an intriguing portrait of three future presidents simultaneously undergoing rites of passage, both political and personal, that shaped them and set them on their epic and “densely interbraided” career trajectories.
So the motor that drives the single-year book is, I think, this tingling fascination or sense of intrigue we often experience when examining the past. But for such an examination to really tingle it must be focused and have a clear structure to it — hence the limited time frame of a single calendar year, along with a pattern to the huddle of events that takes place within it. The pattern could be how an era begins, or how one draws to a close; it could be some undeniable synchronicity, or it could simply be the deliciousness of coincidence. At the wackier end of the spectrum, it could be the suspicion that events are manipulated by hidden or even occult forces. But any examination of past events that doesn’t have an organizing principle to it, a system of selection, will inevitably come off as random and chaotic. Trying to understand it will be like trying to pick mercury up with a fork. This applies to novels, clearly, but it also applies to history books. Mark Twain may have been right when he asserted that the difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense — but if you want to read (or write) in any depth about “reality,” it too has to make some kind of sense.
Ultimately, because time is fluid and the web of cause and effect so vast, so far-reaching, as to be untrackable, and therefore uncontainable, the single-year book is a parlor trick, an illusion, a construct. But it’s a useful construct. We tell stories to ourselves in many different ways, and this is just one of them — and whether these stories are made-up or true is immaterial. The dynamic is the same.
As for 1953, I have my time frame, but I’m still waiting for the pattern to come into focus. I’m still waiting to hit the ground.