The 1960s: a Novel Decade

After writing about Stoner a couple weeks ago, I thought about how the 1960s were a very interesting time for literature.

Actually, John Williams’ superb 1965 novel — a character study of an academic who lived and died before the ’60s began — was somewhat atypical for a decade known for Vietnam War protests; the civil rights, feminist, and gay rights movements; “the sexual revolution”; the counterculture; defiance of authority; and more. Some of the decade’s best-known novels included lots of sociopolitical elements along with memorable characters. I’m thinking of titanic titles such as Harper Lee’s 1960 To Kill a Mockingbird (which addressed racism), Joseph Heller’s 1961 Catch-22 and Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 Slaughterhouse-Five (both with war/antiwar themes), and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1967 One Hundred Years of Solitude (which addressed just about everything).

Other excellent but not masterpiece-quality ’60s novels also referenced topical issues in addition to depicting characters that stick in one’s mind. Among them were Margaret Atwood’s feminist debut novel The Edible Woman (1969), Philip Roth’s sexually candid Portnoy’s Complaint (also 1969), and Ken Kesey’s authority-defying One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962).

Meanwhile, the decade saw notable late-career works by several literary giants. They included John Steinbeck’s 1961 The Winter of Our Discontent (with its interesting take on ethics and materialism), Erich Maria Remarque’s 1962 The Night in Lisbon (a mesmerizing World War II novel), Aldous Huxley’s 1962 Island (a utopian counterpart to the author’s dystopian Brave New World), and Daphne du Maurier’s 1969 The House on the Strand (a fascinating time-travel novel).

Other highly regarded novels of the decade (as in the rest of this post, I’m just naming ones I’ve read) included John Updike’s Rabbit, Run and Sheila Burnford’s The Incredible Journey (1960); Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (1961); Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962); Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and James Michener’s Caravans (1963); Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, and Dorothy Gilman’s The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax (1966); S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and Alistair MacLean’s Where Eagles Dare (1967); Charles Portis’ True Grit (1968); and Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). That last work was a memoir, of course, but almost feels like a novel.

The book I just started reading is Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962).

Your favorite novels published during the 1960s? Any other thoughts on literature in that decade?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about the planned reopening of a historic movie theater — is here.

98 thoughts on “The 1960s: a Novel Decade

  1. Okay, 100 Years of Solitude was an amazing reading experience for me, although I read it in the mid 70’s.
    I’ve never forgotten the name & character of Pietro Crespi.
    One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was a fab read, but I read it in the late 70’s as well as To Kill a Mocking Bird. The rest I know as well known titles, and yet again some….I saw the movie.

    In the 60’s I was busy stealing books from my mom’s “you are not allowed to read these books” cupboard.
    Most memorable was “The Carpetbaggers” by Harold Robbins (1961) and “Harlow: An Intimate Biography” by Irving Shulman (1964) more of an historical fiction, really.
    Dave, you sure have read a lot!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Here are a few Sixties novels I don’t see on your list or in the comments:

    1) “Why Are We in Vietnam?” by Norman Mailer (1967): An unacknowledged homage to the Bill Burroughs prose style, this is a tale of a cigarette-filter manufacturer and his son on a grizzly bear hunt in wildest Alaska– the description of the grizzly bear’s path through the woods is especially memorable– he makes a new one with his mighty paws wherever he happens to go, no matter what’s in front of him.

    2) “The Wanting Seed” by Anthony Burgess (1962)– An arresting picture of a dystopian and darkly funny/strange future world overpopulated, sexually distracted and regulated.

    3) “The Soft Machine” (1961) , 4) “The Ticket That Exploded” (1962), 5) “Nova Express” (1964), all by William Burroughs, all experimental foremost, and all produced by cutting, folding and making phrases run backwards then forward, etc, in an effort to produce something new and unknown through disorder and re-order out of his already prickly prose. Weirdly compelling and regularly, if accidentally, poetic.

    6) “Welcome To Hard Times” by EL Doctorow (1960)– A tale written by a dying man and left behind in a ledger, in which a 19th century Dakota mining town is destroyed, rebuilt better and bigger and then abandoned and destroyed again, its existence cut short by the deadly appearance of The Bad Man from Bodie– twice. Testy, competitive and usually resentful of his fellow novelists, Norman Mailer gave this one a glowing review(!).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY, for those excellent additions to my large but hardly complete list! Superb, vivid descriptions of all six — none of which I’ve read, unfortunately.

      I’ve read several Doctorow novels (including “Ragtime,” “The Book of Daniel,” and “World’s Fair”) but haven’t read “Welcome to Hard Times.” Sounds very intriguing — and amazing to get praise from the prickly Norman Mailer!

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  3. I spent a lot of time reading poetry in the late 60s, which was also my Leonard Cohen period, read his novel Beautiful Losers, but mostly his poems in Spice Box Of Earth, which I left in a Greyhound bus station on my way from Houston, Tx to San Pedro, CA. Same with Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America. And, of course, Electric Kool Aid Acid Test by Thomas Wolfe. Became familiar with Ken Kesey and read his One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes A Great Notion.. Started following Kurt Vonnegut until he passed away, geez but I miss his books. Also, Capote’s In Cold Blood, which scared the heck out of me, but not enough to prevent me from reading Levins Rosemary’s Baby. Re: 60s literature: well, “the medium is the message”, which reminds me I should really read some McLuhan. Great post Dave, Peace out, hee, hee.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the great comment! You have read an impressively wide range of 1960s fiction and nonfiction works! Indeed a very interesting time for all kinds of writing, not just novels. “Sometimes a Great Notion” is a compelling, powerful novel — kind of underrated, I think. I hope someone enjoyed those Leonard Cohen poems you left in that Greyhound station. 🙂

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  4. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch made a big impression on me, as did William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is another one, although it’s “faction.”

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  5. Totally settled?! Ha! Though I will say the interior is pretty much done, but the outside and garage still need a lot of work. So Dave, you picked a good topic for me to start posting about again. The 1960’s were the most formative years of my entire life, and the books I read during those years shaped my ideals, values and principles for good. In 1960, I was 11 years old and reading Nancy Drew, and in 1970, I discovered Agatha Christie — both series of books fostered a lifelong love of mysteries and detective fiction, and Nancy and Christie were role models for me. In between, I read so many great and important books,18 of which were ones that you mentioned. I also discovered wonderful authors, such as my beloved Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Dickens, Tolstoy, Twain, Shakespeare, Homer, and Poe; as well as many other classic and contemporary writers, poets and playwrights. I also can’t forget the many non-fiction books I read back then, especially those dealing with race, the Vietnam war, and other social issues — quite a time to be alive. And don’t let me get started on the great music of that era, starting with the British Invasion, Motown, folk rock, psychedelic music, etc. I could go on and on, but I’ll spare you all that. You might be sorry I came back to your blog! 😊

    Liked by 2 people

    • Silly me, Kat Lit — it can indeed take a long time to get settled after a move. I wish you luck as the process continues. Glad the interior stuff, at least, is far advanced.

      Impressive how many great books and great authors you read as you “came of age” as a literature lover in the 1960s and ’70s! General-interest novels, mysteries, nonfiction books, etc. The fictional Nancy Drew and the real Agatha Christie were/are unquestionably excellent role models. 🙂 And, yes, a lot of ’60s music was terrific, even as I’m also a fan of many songs from the various decades that followed — up to today.

      I of course am not sorry you returned to this blog. 🙂

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      • I can’t let a discussion about books published in the ’60s go by without mentioning once again the cult classic “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me” by Richard Farina. Published in 1966, it was described by his friend Thomas Pynchon as “coming on like the Hallelujah Chorus played by 200 kazoo players with perfect pitch…” I loved the book, for the title alone, and I believe it was jhNY who pointed out to me a few years ago that it came from a line in a blues song by Furry Lewis. I also love the music written and recorded by Richard and his wife Mimi (Joan Baez’s sister) — in fact I was just listening to my CD collection of their music the other day.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thank you, Kat Lit, for the reprise of that interesting mention! And what a great descriptive line about Richard Farina’s book by Thomas Pynchon!

          That title/phrase definitely has a long history. As you probably know, The Doors also used it in a song. And jhNY has an encyclopedic knowledge of older music!

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  6. I’m proud to say I’ve read A LOT of the titles you mentioned here this week – Slaughterhouse-5 would rank pretty high up there on my favorites list too. And I’m actually reading another famous 60s book this week! 🙂 “Dune” by Frank Herbert. It’s been on my list for awhile, and I saw a trailer for the new movie coming out later this year. And I ALWAYS like to read the book before seeing the movie, so I decided to get busy 🙂 It started a little slow, but once I wrapped my head around the different worlds, peoples, and alliances, I really started enjoying it. I’m just over half-way through now!

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  7. Greetings, Dave, to you and all my old friends on your blog (and I hope new ones) from my new home in Indiana, which now makes me officially a Hoosier :). There’s no real agreement as to how that term originated, but my personal favorite is from Wiki, “One account traces the word to the necessary caution of approaching houses on the frontier. In order to avoid being shot, a traveler would call out from afar to let themselves be known. The inhabitants of the cabin would then reply “Who’s here?” which – in the Appalachian English of the early settlers – slurred into “Who’sh ‘ere?” and thence into “Hoosier?” I’d taken a long break from posting comments, mostly because I wasn’t reading any fiction at all for the last half of last year, only non-fiction and a lot of it (memoirs, books about animals and farming, essays by the likes of Gloria Steinem and Barbara Kingsolver). My very favorite book was “Educated” by Tara Westover, alternately uplifting and horrifying, but altogether fascinating, I’d highly recommend it. The first few months of 2021 were almost exclusively spent “reading” realtor.com, trying to find an affordable single family home in either around Philly (impossible), then finding a possible home near Indy on-line and moving here a month ago. Dave, I’ll write more later and will respond to this very interesting column. (Some things never change, trouble with posting!)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Kat Lit, and welcome back! We’ve missed you here. There’s now a wonderful combination of newer and longer-term commenters on the blog. 🙂

      Congratulations on your move to Indiana! I definitely have a soft spot for that state given that my wife was living there (in Terre Haute) when I met her. Whether the origin of the term “Hoosier” you mentioned is the real explanation or not, I love it!

      Though you haven’t been reading fiction it sounds like you’ve read a very interesting variety of nonfiction amid the time-consuming task of finding a new place and moving. Hope you’re now totally settled. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. What a great list of important books you have presented us, Dave:) In the course of the years I have read quite a few of them and they have certainly enriched me. When I was in Enland in 1968 I remember reading the then very shocking “Lady Chatterly’s Lover by D.H.Lawrence, a crazy story about a sexually disappointed wife and her lover as well as a society, where you have, on the one hand, the intellectual or superior ones and on the other the rest!

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  9. Such excellent novels to come out of the 60s, of which I’ve read a few on this list. SE Hinton was a particular revelation, especially then being able to see it come to life when it was made into a movie in the early 80s.
    A number of years ago my father bought me a box set of about 10 books that were written/published in the 60s. The only two I can remember (they’ll be in a box somewhere) are ‘Big Sur’ by Jack Kerouac (1962), which I attempted but really didn’t appreciate, so will have to give another go at some point and ‘Papillon’ by Henri Charrière – which just about sneaks in here as it was published in France in 1969 (or so my good friend Wiki tells me). Whether or not it was based on true events is open to debate but think I read it at a time when I was fascinated with all things Alcatraz and this fits the bill! (still quite fascinated with Alcatraz and got to visit a couple of years ago). It’s quite a marvellous tale of derring-do and outrageous arrogance. It probably goes against the grain of the more philosophical writings and ideas at the time!

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    • Thank you, Sarah!

      I agree that “The Outsiders” (which I finally read a year or two ago) is a terrific novel. I also like “Papillon,” which I forgot to include in my post. Maybe I was thinking it was a memoir when it was more a semi-autobiographical novel. (A hard-to-categorize-ness you of course noted in your comment). It is indeed a riveting book. Yes, not all 1960s novels reflected their times per se.

      Jack Kerouac? I haven’t read “Big Sur,” but did read his famous “On the Road” from 1957. Liked it but wasn’t overwhelmed.

      Love your phrase “my good friend Wiki”! 🙂

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      • In the 50 years or so since ‘Papillon’ was published I think there’s a lot of debate around how much of it is based on fact. But it’s quite a good read all the same.
        Some of these modernist novelists I’ve found quite hard to digest. I remember ploughing through ‘Naked Lunch’ by William S Burroughs (there’s an awful pun if ever I saw one!). I remember being quite pleased when I thought I found a chapter I understood.
        Me and Wiki go back a long way….

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        • Even as many novels are part fact, many memoirs are part-fiction. Almost inevitable. 🙂 I don’t have a problem with the latter as long as the writer and/or publisher doesn’t publicly insist every word is true. Being “a good read” is important.

          “I remember being quite pleased when I thought I found a chapter I understood” — LOL! 😂 Yes, some books are like that; those works can get VERY annoying.

          Liked by 2 people

  10. Novel decade indeed, Dave. I’ve read several of these well after the 60’s, with the only exception being To Kill a Mockingbird. I remember having it out on my desk in high school, and someone remarked it was practically a banned book. I felt a little thrill. 🙂

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  11. Thanks so much

    On Sun, 23 May 2021, 17:25 Dave Astor on Literature wrote:

    > Dave Astor posted: ” After writing about Stoner a couple weeks ago, I > thought about how the 1960s were a very interesting time for literature. > Actually, John Williams’ superb 1965 novel — a character study of an > academic who lived and died before the ’60s b” >

    Liked by 2 people

  12. I was 5 when I entered the 1960’s and 15, when I left to embrace the 1970’s taking with me all of the experiences of the 10 years that proved to be, as some experts believe, the most revolutionary of the 20th century.

    The 1960’s was about ideas. If you look back into history, these ideas had been in the conversation of humanity for centuries – just not in the same way. Social justice, equality, economic freedom, even women’s rights (to some extent – still had a long way to go there)Consider Aristotle’s thought: “The only stable state is the one in which all men are equal before the law.” And Plato “If women are expected to do the same work as men, we must teach them the same things.”

    Bless the writers of the 1960’s because they brought the ideas to life for our generation and recorded a time that will never be forgotten. Some with great boldness like Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique.” (I remember Frances reading that book) And some with memories like May Angelou “I know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” And some with warnings like “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson.

    At the start of the 1960’s I read “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle. At the end, I was reading “The Godfather” by Mario Puzo and “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee

    The 1960’s remain ever fresh in my memory, as do the books, some of which I have reread over the years. Whether or not we agree with an author does not negate that we are influenced by their writings. Books challenge us to look at our preconceived values and judgements and look inward. May we choose to embrace life with courage, forgiveness, and soft, but powerfully transformative words.

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    • Thank you, Rebecca! VERY eloquently said. I also experienced the ’60s at the relatively same age range as you. Indeed a decade of ideas, revolutionary thought, right-wing reaction to much of that, and more. With some selfish excesses, of course, too.

      You reading “A Wrinkle in Time” early in the 1960s and “To Kill a Mockingbird” later in the ’60s…GREAT “bookends” to the decade.

      And I’m glad you also mentioned some ultra-important, landmark nonfiction of the decade. My parents were not much for book reading, but my mother did have a copy of “The Feminine Mystique” as one of the few parental-owned books in the house. Whether she read it or not, I don’t know. 🙂 Glad your mom did!

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      • I am so glad that I lived in that decade. We didn’t know, as we lived in those day, the profound progress that was occurring within our society. As I look back, I think – wow – that really happened in my time. And at the end of the 60’s we saw a man walk on the moon. I am reminded by Collette’s quote: “What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner.”

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        • I hear you, Rebecca. Every decade has its great points, and I try not to get caught up in too much nostalgia, but the 1960s were a more transformative decade than many. And, yes, the moon landing was part of the icing on the cake. I’m lucky to live in the town where second-person-on-the-moon Buzz Aldrin grew up. His childhood home is five blocks from my apartment, and my younger daughter goes to Buzz Aldrin Middle School.

          A terrific/profound quote by Colette! I love many of her novels.

          Liked by 2 people

  13. Bebe here Dave !

    TKAM in 60s by Harper Lee tells us about racism And how Atticus dealt with racism fight for an innocent Black Man and lost the battle..
    We are still losing the battle , now after Mr. Floyd’s murder several blacks were wrongfully murdered, at least one in every day. !

    Incidentally Ms. Lee in her last stage being pressured by her lawyer published a book making Atticus in the border range of being prejudiced.

    How many decades have gone ?

    In real life Asians who are in this Country for decades are being beaten up.

    Now CNN just fired of onetime Senator now a smirk nonsensical contributor
    How they put up with an ignorant racist contributor is beyond me.

    Racism is well and alive in this Country of immigrants when the real natives are the Indians .

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, bebe!

      Yes, depressing how the 1930s racism depicted so memorably in “To Kill a Mockingbird” is still very much with us, in similar and different forms. 😦 With the victims African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native-Americans, LGBTQ people, and others.

      Like you, I wonder if an aged/in-ill-health Harper Lee really wanted “Go Set a Watchman” (with the biased Atticus) to be published. Much of what I’ve read about it indicates that it was an early draft of “TKAM.”

      SO glad the insufferable/intolerant/far-right Rick Santorum was let go by CNN. Should indeed have happened long ago.

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          • Bebe again Dave…showing TKAM in AMC…what a Novel what a Movie.

            Again decades ago book and disappointing to see that Racism is alive and well..even worse .
            No respect for a living soul if skin color is not somebody’s liking…and Dave again this is a Country build by immigrants..

            Only Americans are the Native ones who are ignored and insulted all the time.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Thank you, bebe! The “To Kill a Mockingbird” movie with Gregory Peck IS a great adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel.

              And, yes, racism is alive and well in the U.S. 60 years after the “TKAM” book and film came out. Totally agree that the U.S. is a country built by immigrants, and that the peoples now called Native-Americans were here first yet are among the most discriminated against. 😦

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    • Thank you, The English Professor at Large! VERY impressive that you’ve read all the novels mentioned, even given your profession. 🙂

      Ha — reading postage stamps, too! 😂 Reading almost everything is a good thing — the backs of cereal boxes, too. 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

  14. Maya Angelou’s “Cage Bird Sings” a favorite. Also read her 2nd book in series,” Gather Together In My Name. ” Also very well written account of her life in California. 5 books in series. I’d like to read all of them. They are very important books. She was a magnificent woman.

    You mentioned Shirley Jackson. I remember reading,in college,her short story called, ” The Lottery” which was disturbing,has stayed with me since. Not sure if written in the 1960’s.

    A Clockwork Orange: I saw in a college film class, also disturbing. A fellow student walked out during the screening, I remember was too violent for her to watch.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Michele! I agree about that Maya Angelou book; unfortunately, I haven’t read any of the sequels. She was indeed a person of MANY talents.

      Google tells me “The Lottery” was published in 1948. A VERY disturbing story that says more than we’d like about one aspect of the psyche of some Americans — and of some people anywhere.

      I also saw “The Clockwork Orange” movie (perhaps before reading the novel), and it was indeed violent and other things that would make a viewer queasy.

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    • Thank you, Robbie! I hear you — we all gravitate to different decades or eras of literature than other readers might. I’m partial to 19th-century fiction, and have kept up with a number of novels published since 2000, but there were certainly many great books in the 20th century — including the 1960s. “Catch-22” is a masterful satirical work.

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        • Just reading the complete works of Poe — wonderful, Robbie! So many great creations, including his memorable poems and stories (many but not all macabre, of course). “The Sleeper” is beautiful, eerie, and disturbing.

          I read a large Poe collection as a teen and still have the (falling apart) book. I can’t count how many times I reread it back then.

          Liked by 1 person

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