Between Mad Men, the new series Pan Am the 2010 film Howl and the upcoming film adaptation of On the Road, popular media has obviously taken a renewed interest in the late 1950s and early 60s. And what a remarkable time it was, especially in New York City. Fidel Castro eating ice cream at the Bronx Zoo–Nikita Khrushchev brandishing his shoe at the U.N. General Assembly and having a temper tantrum because the authorities would not permit him to go to Disneyland—and of course the Beats emerging from a cult status to becoming the literary voice of a generation.
Fred Kaplan authored an intriguing account of this year in history titled 1959: The Year Everything Changed. As evident in the title, he presents a bold thesis, but lines up such compelling events, from Allen Ginsberg’s triumphant reading at Columbia University to the recording of Kind of Blue, it is clear that this single year in history marked the beginning of the tidal changes of the mid and late 1960s.
To me, it is beyond coincidence that Toole was in New York during this time. In fact, because he taught across the street from the Soviet Embassy, he saw the comings and goings of Castro and Khrushchev in September of 1960.
It was around this period in New York that he started “sketching” what would become his famous character Ignatius Reilly. He would finish his novel in Puerto Rico—but there is no mistake that Ignatius was crafted in the heart of the social changes so evident at the turn of the decade in New York City.
And during this time Toole walked across the Columbia campus–from his dorm room to his classes at Philosophy Hall–everyday passing the School of Journalism–established by Joseph Pulitzer. In that same building over twenty years later (and eleven years after his suicide) the Pulitzer committee would gather with Toole’s novel in hand and award him the Pulitzer Prize.
Surely if I had my hands on a time machine, New York City between 1959 and 1961 would be at the top of my list.