1950s

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.

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing (1950)

When Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007, judges described her as "that epicist of the female experience, who with skepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny."

All that began with the Grass is Singing (included in this audiobook collection, left), her first novel, about the complex relationship between a white farmer's wife and her black servant in apartheid Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The book caused a sensation on publication, and lead in 1956 to the governments of both Southern Rhodesia and South Africa declaring her a “prohibited alien”.

The story follows Mary, a spirited, independent-minded young woman who becomes the down-trodden wife of a hapless farmer she doesn't love. But when a mysterious Black farmhand called Moses arrives at the farm, she falls down a rabbit hole of attraction and repulsion, at first treating him with the contempt colonial society had taught her, before starting the fall for the man he is.

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (1951)

Holden Cauldfield needs no introduction. Love, quite like, or loathe him, he has for almost 70 years been the universal voice of teenage angst and rebellion. A 17-year-old New Yorker with a problem with authority, he does a bunk from school and sets out in search of some spiritual truth as he rails against the 'phoniness' of adult life. Yes, he's a prodigious worrier, a whiner, an alienated egotist with nothing but rage for the machine. But isn't that what being a teenager is mostly about?

“[By the late 1950s} it had become the book all brooding adolescents had to buy,” wrote British critic and author Ian Hamilton, “the indispensable manual from which cool styles of disaffectation could be borrowed.”

In other words, for many teenagers in the 1950s, Cauldfield held up a mirror, giving a voice to what most adolescents – the sensitive, self-reflective ones, at least – thought but hadn't yet worked out how to say. And time hasn't sanded down its edge. It has since sold more than 65 million copies and become such a sensation that the 1950s were dubbed in literary circles as “the decade of Salinger”.

The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1951)

You can't talk about literature of the 1950s and not talk about Ernest Hemingway. It was the decade he won the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize and became an international celebrity. 

And if you are to talk about Hemingway's writing, the Old Man and The Sea should be top of the list. Even Hemingway thought it his best work, calling it “the best I can write ever for all of my life"

After some years in the doldrums, the story – about an old fisherman battling against a giant marlin off the coast of Cuba – completely reanimated Hemingway's reputation. People started reading him again.

But what really struck a chord with readers of the 1950s, was the tale's central message of hope; that the world might turn against you, storms may come and monsters may strike, but nothing can overcome the power of human toil. “Here is the master technician once more at the top of his form, doing superbly what he can do better than anyone else,” wrote Orville Prescott of the New York Times in 1951, adding: “the old man is the very embodiment of dogged courage.” 

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.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952)

"I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me . . ."

So opens Ralph Ellison's masterpiece of race-rage literature, about an unnamed black man grappling with a world that won't accept him, and with what Ellison called 'the beautiful absurdity' of modern identity.

Few novels have had such a profound impact on racial politics in America than this. “No one interested in books by or about American Negroes should miss it, ” wrote the New York Times in 1952. “[It] is far more than a race novel, or even a bildungsroman,” wrote Lev Grossman in TIME. “It’s the quintessential American picaresque of the 20th century.”

Dark, defiant, and uproariously funny, it rang out like a wolf's howl for disenfranchised black Americans who still felt ignored by mainstream culture. And it remains one of the most important works of fiction of the 20th century, has been read by millions, is still studied in schools, and established Ellison as an American literary giant.

The Borrowers by Mary Norton (1952)

"I am a fits and starts writer," Mary Norton said once. "And love just living - unless some wonderful idea suddenly appears."

One was The Borrowers – a story of a family of tiny people who live in the homes of normal-sized humans, own nothing, share everything and “borrow” whatever they need from the humans upstairs. They use cotton reels as chairs, wooden spoons as boat paddles, stamps as wall pictures and coins as plates.

The book was an instant triumph upon its release in 1952, winning Norton the Library Association's prestigious Carnegie Medal for the best children's book of that year. It has enraptured adults and children alike ever since (thanks in part to at least four adaptations in film and TV), providing children with a perfectly valid reason why small household objects go missing.

Its genius was met with adulation across the Atlantic, too, described in the New York Times as "a charming story, beautifully written," reminiscent of "Alice in Wonderland" and "The Wind in the Willows."

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.”

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."

Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan (1954)

Francoise Sagan was a hedonistic, tomboy beauty who drove racing cars barefoot and took so many drugs that her pet dog allegedly overdosed from sniffing her handkerchiefs. She lived to shock.

It started when she was just 18, with the sensational publication of her novel Bonjour Tristesse. Saucy, seductive and scandalously “amoral”, it was her heroine Cecile – a teenage wild child who thinks, drinks and likes sex – that jammed in the throats of polite society on both sides of the Channel, and the Atlantic. “A vulgar, sad little book," harrumphed The Spectator. And that's precisely why, within the first two years of publication, more than 350,000 copies were sold in France alone.

The story follows Cecile and her widowed playboy dad, Raymond, across one fateful summer holiday on the French Riviera. He brings his young mistress, while Cecile meets the young man of her dreams. But when an old female friend of Raymond's arrives, the status quo is shattered, setting in motion a chain of events that seem sure to end in tragedy.

In the years before the sexual liberation of the 1960s, writing stories about confident young women, unbound by the lopsided moral codes of patriarchy, was deliciously eyebrow-hoiking. Speaking of the book's controversy many years later, Sagan said, “It was unacceptable … that a young girl should have the right to use her body as she will, and derive pleasure from it without incurring a penalty."

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J. R. R. Tolkien (1954 - 1956)

Seventeen years after J. R. R. Tolkien dispatched The Hobbit on the warpath to conquer the epic fantasy genre, he sent The Fellowship of the Ring to finish the job. It laid waste to every fantasy novel written before. “The Fellowship of the Ring is like lightning from a clear sky,” gushed Narnia creator C. S. Lewis. “Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart.”

The Hobbit had already made a strong case for fantasy fiction as an adult pursuit, but the The Fellowship of the Ring, soon followed by The Two Towers and The Return of the King, cast it in iron. Almost no other book of any genre has had a greater impact on popular culture than Tolkien's epic trilogy - one of the first stories to break out of the Sci-Fi ghetto into ‘mainstream literature’. 

As W. H. Auden wrote in 1954: "The demands made on the writer's powers in an epic as long as The Lord of the Rings are enormous and increase as the tale proceeds – the battles have to get more spectacular, the situations more critical, the adventures more thrilling – but I can only say that Mr Tolkien has proved equal to them".

The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith (1956)

We've all seen the Disney film; we all know the story: two dogs called Pongo and Missis have puppies and life is wonderful. Wonderful, that is, until the dastardly Cruella de Vil snatches the litter to make a spotted fur coat. So, using a terrifyingly sophisticated dog-bark messaging network, they leave their cosy lives behind to rescue their brood.

The film is a classic. But Dodie Smith's novel upon which it is based, is far sweeter, far scarier, far richer and a whole lot funnier than its animated adaptation. For a start, in Smith's story, dog brains are bigger than human ones. “Like many other much-loved humans, they believed they owned their dogs, instead of realising that their dogs owned them,” writes Smith, who owned nine Dalmatians herself. “Pongo and Missis found this touching and amusing and let their pets think it was true.”

It was an instant hit. A decade after the Second World War had ended, the world was still reeling from its horrors. And not only was it the ultimate feelgood story, but it described a world where animals, not humans, ran the show. Which is to say: a world war could never have happened on Pongo and Missis' watch.

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Books that defined the 1940s

Books that defined the 1930s

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (1957)

How many novels can you think of that have inspired a dating site for its fans? That's the impact Ayn Rand's theories on objectivism and self-interest have had on modern thought and identity today (she's Donald Trump's favourite author).

It's called The Atlasphere, where Rand fans can find their soulmates through a shared belief in "man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life."

The enduring success of Atlas Shrugged is dizzying. Essentially a 1,200-page love-letter to hard-core capitalism, it portrays a dystopian America where captains of industry grapple against suffocating governmental regulation until they all go on strike, bringing the world's economy to its knees.

Three decades later, the Ayn Rand Institute was established to promote her ideas, and in 1991 a survey by the Library of Congress named Atlas Shrugged as the most influential book in the US, after the Bible.

She may not be everyone's cup of Tea-party politics, but Rand's influence on right-wing political thought is indelible.

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."

On The Road by Jack Kerouac (1957)

On the Road is the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as 'beat,' and whose principal avatar he is,” wrote the New York Times in 1957.

As the world sunk deeper into Auden's Age of Anxiety, On The Road became a blueprint for a generation desperate for a sense of place in a fast-changing world. "It changed my life like it changed everyone else's," Bob Dylan would say many years later.

Set against a backdrop of jazz, poetry, and drug use, Jack Kerouac's semi-autobiographical tale of two young men's exhilarating road trip back and forth across the United States tapped into the romance of a life on the open road. Rich with hedonistic adventures, riding freight trains, hanging out with hobos, and drinking red wine under the moon, it became the very definition of a youthful lust for life.

“The Beat literary movement came at exactly the right time and said something that millions of people all over the world were waiting to hear,” William Burroughs later wrote. “The alienation, the restlessness, the dissatisfaction were already there waiting when Kerouac pointed out the road.'

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958)

This towering tour de force, according to philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, “defined a starting point for the modern African novel.” More than any that came before, Appiah wrote, “he found a way to represent for a global Anglophone audience the diction of his Igbo homeland, allowing readers of English elsewhere to experience a particular relationship to language and the world in a way that made it seem quite natural – transparent.”

Published a year after Ghana became the first African nation to gain independence from colonial rule, Chinua Achebe's debut novel opens at the start of this awful chapter of African history.

Life for the village in which wrestler, warrior and narrator Okonwo lives has barely changed in hundreds of years – a brutal, violent life borne out of hardship. But when the English show up with their Bibles, laws and guns, the village's culture and customs begin to dissolve into the past.

What follows is the story of one man's efforts to protect his community from the onslaught of European colonialism. “One of the first works of fiction to present African village life from an African perspective,” wrote the New Yorker in 2008, “Achebe began the literary reclamation of his country’s history from generations of colonial writers.”

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (1957, first English translation 1958)

Rarely does the publication of a book cause an international squabble. But when Boris Pasternak had the manuscript of Doctor Zhivago smuggled out of Soviet Russia, he quipped to his new Italian publisher, "You are hereby invited to watch me face the firing squad.”

At face value, Doctor Zhivago is an epic love story about the life and romances of a poet-physician caught up in the turmoil of the Russian Revolution of 1917. But between the lines it was also a truth-to-power takedown of the Soviet Union's glossy version of recent Russian history, pulling no punches in calling out the brutality of the Bolshevik regime. The Soviets were enraged, with one state-run newspaper calling it, “artistically squalid, malicious work replete with hatred of Socialism.”

The CIA, on the other hand, saw a Cold War cultural weapon too good to miss, and allegedly even leaned on the Nobel Prize committee to give Pasternak the prize, which they did in 1958. Yet, under pressure from his Soviet honchos, he reluctantly turned it down and returned to his homeland a broken man. Still, his novel remains one of the great events of global literary history.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote (1958)

Holly Golightly isn't just one of Truman Capote's greatest creations, she is one of the greatest heroines of modern literature. She's a Cinderella, really – a young girl who escapes a bleak adolescence and transforms herself through the sheer force of her aspiration. Only, this Cinderella might not live happily ever after. It's never quite clear.

She is one of those few literary characters who no longer just exists between the pages of her book. Rather, from the moment Capote birthed her, she became an icon of modern Western womanhood.

There were plenty of New York it-girls who claimed to have inspired the inveterate partygirl of New York's burgeoning 50s social scene, but – in the words of Capote’s biographer Gerald Clarke – “the one Holly most resembles, in spirit if not in body, is her creator”.

As for Capote himself, it was Norman Mailer who summed up his influence on the 1950s literary scene, when he called him, “a ballsy little guy and … the most perfect writer of my generation, he writes the best sentences, word for word, rhythm upon rhythm.”

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)

Houses aren't haunted, people are. That was the idea behind Shirley Jackson's groundbreaking ghost story that effectively redefined the psychological horror genre. And The Haunting of Hill House is now widely considered to be the greatest haunted-house story ever written.

It centres on paranormal investigator Dr John Montague and his carefully picked team of ghost hunters as they stay in the eponymous old house (“a place of contained ill will”) to prove the existence of supernatural forces. Soon, writing begins appearing on walls, things go bump in the night as spectral forces grab them in the dark, leading them deeper towards a creeping, terrifying truth.

It is a book that British horror titan Ramsey Campbell called “the greatest of all haunted house novels, and arguably the greatest novel of the supernatural”. Stephen King called it one of two “great supernatural novels” of the last century (The other is The Turn of the Screw.)

And its impact on the horror genre – both in 1959 and now – cannot be overstated. As Joe Hill – the author and son of Stephen King – remarked: “In the story, the house toys with the minds of our heroes just like the cat with the mouse: with a fascinated, joyful cruelty. Nothing is more terrifying than being betrayed by your own senses and psyche.”

Under The Net by Iris Murdoch (1954)

This was Iris Murdoch's first novel (of 27!), marking the emergence of one of the most fearless, caustic, passionate and brilliantly funny writers of the 20th century. “The scope of her vision,” wrote New York Times critic Dwight Garner in 2019, “makes you feel, when you are close to her fiction, that you have glimpsed the sublime – that you have swum very near to a whale.”

Under the Net tells the story of Jake Donaghue, an intelligent, likeable and terminally skint young drifter who makes his money through translation work and mooching off his friends.

So, in a bid to take charge of his runaway life, he goes on an absurd odyssey of self-discovery, meeting left-wing political leaders, a high-flying bookmaker, glamorous actresses, mime artists; he skinny dips in the Thames, pops over to Paris and kidnaps a celebrity dog.

But far more than just a comic masterpiece, Under the Net dances with Murdoch's complex ideas on love, philosophy, politics and the art of writing. As TIME's Richard Lacayo put it: “Right out of the gate [Murdoch] displayed all her sinuous gifts — her questing mind, her comic skepticism, her wildly entangled plots.”

Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs (1959)

This taboo-shattering masterpiece follows Bill Lee, junkie, dreamer, sex-fiend, cop-killer, as he bounces through time and space – from Mexico City to New York to Tangiers – in the gurning pursuit of his next fix. It is, at its core, a portrait of addiction (what Burroughs called “the algebra of need”). But it's also about sexual depravity, paranoia, and existential ennui.

It also tapped into a malaise that Burroughs believed was sweeping 1950s America – the strangulation of freedom in all its forms. It challenged sexual censorship, McCarthyite anti-communism, consumerism, racism, homophobia and political corruption. ''I do definitely mean what I say to be taken literally, yes, to make people aware of the true criminality of our times, to wise up to the marks,'' Burroughs said in 1970. “All of my work is directed against those who are bent, through stupidity or design, on blowing up the planet or rendering it uninhabitable."

Naked Lunch was so eye-meltingly explicit in its descriptions of sex and drug use that at first no American publisher would touch it. So he took it to Paris where the storm began. By 1965, it was the subject of an obscenity trial in the US, which – after testimonies from such literary heavyweights as Allen Ginsberg and Norman Mailer – was ultimately overturned. That verdict, in short, was a landmark moment in American literature, removing the bar for sexually explicit material in books. 

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