Reading lists

Books that shaped the 1950s

Leaving behind the war-torn 1940s, here's to the 1950s – a decade defined by Cold War panic, the breakdown of colonialism, civil rights, hope, economic boom, TV... and an awful lot of great literature.

Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

By the 1950s, the world was trilby-deep in what W. H. Auden famously called The Age of Anxiety. The Cold War was nearing its icy pinnacle, and the McCarthy witch hunts were in full force. Less than a decade earlier, Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been destroyed by two atomic bombs, an international arms race was off the mark, and the shadow of Hitler still loomed over Europe.

But then, imperial colonialism was dissolving, too – and with it the pain felt by its victims began to emerge into the mainstream. There was an economic boom, a baby boom, and the voice the Civil Rights movement also began to boom. Plus, people were finally starting to talk about sex.

Of course, like all major cultural shifts, all this was reflected in literature. So, from Doris Lessing to J. D. Salinger, Ralph Ellison to Dodie Smith, here are 20 great books that helped define the 1950s.

"It caused tremors when it came out – a novel of self-exposure and lesbian love in an era that had little patience for either."

The Price of Salt, later published as Carol, by Patricia Highsmith (1952)

“Prior to this book,” wrote Patricia Highsmith in 2015, “homosexuals male and female in American novels had had to pay for their deviation by cutting their wrists, drowning themselves in a swimming pool, or by switching to heterosexuality … or by collapsing – alone and miserable and shunned – into a depression equal to hell.”

All that changed with The Price of Salt – the first mainstream novel about a lesbian affair... with a happy ending. It is, in short, a love story between a ennui-crippled 19-year-old girl, Therese, and an older woman, wife and mother called Carol. After meeting in the department store where Therese works, sparks fly and soon they're on the run together. In each others arms, their loneliness drains away.

It caused tremors when it came out – a novel of self-exposure (it was heavily semi-autobiographical) and lesbian love in an era that had little patience for either.

And while Highsmith is perhaps better known for two of the six other novels she wrote during the 1950s – Strangers on a Train (1950) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) – “Salt” was part of a vanguard of 50s literature leading homosexuality into the sunlight.

Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin (1953)

The 1950s was the decade James Baldwin launched himself as the civil rights movement's loudest literary voice. He published all three of his most famous works during that time – Got Tell it on the Mountain, Notes of a Native Son and Giovanni's Room. All three were defining books of the decade, but we've chosen Go Tell It on the Mountain because it was his first novel, and signalled the moment Baldwin set out his stall as America's defender-in-chief of black identity in the 1950s.

Based in part on Baldwin's own childhood in Harlem, it tracks a day in the life of 14-year-old John Grimes, the son of a fire-and-brimstone preacher, as he tussles with his developing sexual awareness under the crushing weight of Christian guilt. “Judicious men in their chairs may explain the sociology of guilt, and so explain Negro religion away,” wrote the New York Times in 1953. “Mr. Baldwin will not have it away. In this beautiful, furious first novel, there are no such reductions.”

Beginning with this, the seismic impact Baldwin had on the race debate in the 50s was best summarised by author Maya Angelou when she wrote in 1987: “[Baldwin] burned with a righteous indignation over the paucity of kindness, the absence of love and the crippling hypocrisy he saw in the streets of the United States and sensed in the hearts of his fellow citizens.”

“There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)

By 1953, the future, for many, looked bleak. It wasn't just the Cold War, memories of Hitler and McCarthyite oppression that sowed fear.

For Ray Bradbury, there was something else: the invasion of black-and-white television in people's homes. So he wrote Fahrenheit 451, about a dystopian future America where books are banned, and firemen burn them, and people are entertained by staring at giant wall screens in their homes, day and night. To him, TV was the new opiate of the masses. Reading was dying, and with it critical thinking. “There are worse crimes than burning books,” Bradbury once said. “One of them is not reading them.”

Fahrenheit 451 was a smash hit. The influential science fiction writer August Derleth called it, "a savage and shockingly prophetic view of one possible future way of life." While another, Groff Conklin, said it was "among the great works of the imagination written in English in the last decade or more."

“Children are going to have the exciting experience of learning that they can read after all"

The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss (1957)

By the 1950s, America had tumbled into a literacy crisis. "Why can't Johnny read?” worried the headline of a Life magazine article by the writer John Hersey. Children, it was thought, were reading too many comic books and not enough book-books. The problem? Books in schools (known as “Dick and Jane Primers”) were too boring. 

Enter Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, and his story of a home invasion. With the decision to put one picture per page, he conjured The Cat in the Hat from a vocabulary list of 240 words.

It's about an anthropomorphic cat who appears at the home of two children while their mother is out. With his two pals, Thing One and Thing Two, he wows them with games and tricks, trashing the house to the chagrin of a sentient goldfish.

The reviews frothed with praise. “Parents and teachers will bless Mr. Geisel for this amusing reader with its ridiculous and lively drawings,” cooed a typical review in the Saturday Review, “for their children are going to have the exciting experience of learning that they can read after all."

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