The Poet Laureate of England and I have two things in common: our admiration for Philip Larkin and the date of our births. Andrew Motion and I were born on Oct. 26, 1952. I would love to quote an appropriate line from Motion’s poetry, but it’s rather dull and nothing seems to fit. Instead, I want briefly to celebrate the misunderstood era into which we were born, and make it an all-American affair. It’s customary to think of the 1950s as a culturally barren time, especially among those who sentimentalize the 1960s, but the record shows the arts in the United States were flourishing.
Earlier in 1952, Ralph Ellison had published Invisible Man, which Saul Bellow reviewed in Commentary and rightly judged a “superb book.” Bellow himself was completing The Adventures of Augie March and Vladimir Nabokov was polishing Lolita. Raymond Chandler was working on The Long Goodbye, and William Gaddis on The Recognitions. John Berryman was about to publish Homage to Mistress Bradstreet in the Partisan Review, and the Dream Songs were germinating. Marianne Moore won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry that year. Wallace Stevens’ Selected Poems was published in England, though his teacher and friend, George Santayana, died on Sept. 26. Auden, Lowell, Bishop and Cheever were working. Ezra Pound was in the nut house. Leon Edel was about to publish Henry James: The Untried Years 1843-1870, the first installment of his five-volume summa. The first issue of Mad magazine came out in October 1952.
Charlie Parker was falling apart that year but managed to record a great concert in Boston with Charles Mingus and Roy Haynes. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Paul Desmond, Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Rollins, among others, were thriving. Just before leaving Columbia, Frank Sinatra recorded “The Birth of the Blues” and “I’m a Fool to Want You” – portents of the even greater to come. Elvis Presley was driving a truck. Robert Zimmerman was listening to Hank Williams, who died Jan. 1, 1953, in the back seat of a Cadillac.
Among the American artists represented at the Venice Biennale that year were Edward Hopper, Stuart Davis, Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Alexander Calder. Hopper, Charles Burchfield and Andrew Wyeth served as jurors for the watercolor section of a show of works on paper at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Jackson Pollock painted “Blue Poles.”
And an Internet search turned up a notable bit of television trivia: NBC broadcast the first episode of Victory at Sea, one of my father’s favorite shows, at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 26, 1952.
Can you suggest a subsequent year with a comparable flowering of American culture?
ADDENDUM: My oldest son has contributed two more noteworthy events from 1952: On March 27, Sam Phillips started Sun Records in Memphis, and Joe Strummer (John Graham Mellor) was born Aug. 21. I know, I know: Strummer was English, but listen to the music.