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Best Sellers from Past Decades: the 1950s

by Jessica Gallo

On the surface, the 1950s was a time of increased material prosperity and growth of the “suburban” lifestyle.  The stereotypical family consisted of a father with a successful career, a stay-at-home mother, and their clean-cut children.  Beneath the surface, though, stress simmered and anxiety stemmed from conflict both at home and abroad.  Here at home, people fought for civil rights and women’s rights.  Some chafed against the constraints they felt from trying to live up to the American ideal of success.  Stresses from overseas included the Cold War and fear of the spread of Communism, the Korean War, and the start of the Vietnam War. 

Novels in the 1950s had little tying them together in terms of an overriding theme.  Topics varied as widely as the experiences of their authors.  The decade gave us a wealth of enduring classics: Catcher in the Rye by Salinger, Lolita by Nabokov, Lord of the Flies by Golding, Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Capote, Fahrenheit 451 by Bradbury, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged are just a few.  Several of these books made the PBS list of 100 books for The Great American Read. For more information about The Great American Read check under the Events tab on this website.

1950 saw the first African-American winner of the Pulitzer in Gwendolyn Brooks (poetry – Annie Allen).  Ralph Ellison published Invisible Man, a novel about an idealistic young, black college graduate who fights to maintain his optimism in an America still plagued by racism.  And though the decade’s literature is often viewed as male-dominated, women, including Sylvia Plath, Shirley Jackson, Flannery O’Connor, and Edna Ferber, found both commercial and critical success.

One literary movement that stands out in the 1950s is the Beat movement. Centered mainly in bohemian artists’ communities in California and New York, Beat writers sought to liberate poetry from academics and make it accessible.  They felt alienated from society, celebrated non-conformity and spontaneous creativity, and they felt a strong connection to the Transcendentalists of the mid-19th century, including their focus on environmentalism.  Their writing was less formal and more profane, which led to obscenity trials for two of the movement’s most prominent names – Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs (Ginsberg and his publisher won, while the ban on Burroughs’s Naked Lunch was overturned on a later appeal).  These trials paved the way for a more liberal approach to publishing.  The most famous author to come out of the Beat movement was Jack Kerouac, whose On the Road is consistently ranked as one of the best novels of the twentieth century.

Many of the above titles can be found on the shelf at Peoria Public Library locations.  See a staff member if you can’t find what you want and need help in placing a hold to get these works from other libraries.

Check back in August, when we’ll take a look at best sellers from the 1960s!


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