The 1950s were a strange time in the U.S., when a prevailing post-WWII normalcy, calmness, and prosperity fostered new countercultures. Their rebellious attitudes started showing up prominently in the music, movies, art, politics, and yes—the literature—of the decade. This can be seen easily with a quick look at some of the most iconic, enduring American books published in the 1950s.
In them, there are recurring themes of alienation, inequality, and rebellion. So many of the greatest books of the ’50s highlight societal problems like injustice, censorship, and commercialization. Just take a look at the following 20 classic American books published in the 1950s.
Great American Literature from the ’50s
- A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play is an important depiction of life for African-Americans at the time and it reached white audiences in a groundbreaking way.
- A Separate Peace – Published in 1959, John Knowles’ first and best-known novel tells a moving coming-of-age/loss of innocence story set during the World War II years.
- Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand’s pivotal 1957 work about government corruption and total free-market capitalism has been highly influential on libertarian and conservative political thought.
- Breakfast at Tiffany’s – Introducing Holly Golightly, arguably Truman Capote’s most famous character, this 1958 novella is one of this major American author’s most important books.
- The Cat in the Hat – This book, released in 1957, is considered the most iconic work in Dr. Seuss’ canon of widely celebrated, innovative, instantly recognizable children’s literature.
- Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – Probably the most famous play by Tennesse Williams, this probing look at deception and death was published in 1955 and quickly won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
- Catcher in the Rye – This 1951 J.D. Salinger classic about Holden Caulfield, a 16-year-old frustrated by the world’s phoniness, is a staple for angsty teens and high school English classes.
- Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White’s tale about a spider working to save a pig’s life was a unique look at death for kids. Published in 1952, it’s the all-time bestselling children’s paperback.
- The Crucible – First released in 1953, Arthur Miller’s most famous play is superficially about the Salem witch trials, but actually comments on McCarthy-era persecution of communists.
- East of Eden – This classic 1952 John Steinbeck novel is his most ambitious, drawing deeply from the Bible’s Book of Genesis in its depiction of life in early 1900s Central California.
- Fahrenheit 451 – Portraying a dystopian futurre of banned and burning books, Ray Bradbury’s influential novel about censorship and the dumbing down of information was released in 1953.
- Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin’s 1956 novel about social alienation was shocking at the time for its portrayal of homosexuality. It’s considered one of the great works of gay literature.
- The Haunting of Hill House – A seminal work of the literary ghost story genre, Shirley Jackson’s 1959 book delivers a depth, complexity, and true creepiness that’s rare and haunting.
- Howl and Other Poems – Allen Ginsberg’s landmark titular poem from this collection, published in 1956, is a major achievement of Beat literature and modern American poetry.
- I, Robot – This collection of short stories from science fiction master Isaac Asimov came out in 1950. It remains one of the most-read and most influential American sci-fi thrillers to this day.
- Invisible Man – Published in 1952, Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece portrays life as an African American in the mid-century years, on the cusp of the beginning of the civil rights movement.
- The Lord of the Rings – Easily the most influential fantasy literature work, this J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy was written between 1937 and 1949 and published in three stages from 1954 to 1955.
- Naked Lunch – William S. Burroughs’ best-known book, put out in 1959, is a Beat Generation classic that originally got itself in lots of trouble due to its subject matter and obscene language.
- The Old Man and the Sea – The last major Ernest Hemingway book published in his lifetime, this short 1951 novel re-established the author as a master of simple prose probing deep themes.
- On the Road – Jack Kerouac’s 1957 tale recounting his cross-country adventures introduced the world to Kerouac’s “bop prosody” style, and is the defining work of the Beat Generation.
Love 1950s Rebellion?
Where was it better encapsulated than the emergence of rock and roll?