The Last Innocent Year

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The year between the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, and the landslide election of Lyndon Johnson in November, 1964, was a watershed for modern America. It was a year in which much that had seemed permanent and enduring—from politics to pop music, public policy to personal relationships—dissolved or changed, sometimes literally overnight.

In the traumatic aftermath of the murder, Lyndon Johnson, a determined but curiously uncertain giant, moved to assert his place in American history. He pushed through a landmark civil rights bill that began a transformation in the nation’s social and political history, but which helped switch the South from a Democratic stronghold to a Republican bastion. During 1964, Johnson envisioned the Great Society, yet found himself marching inexorably into the morass of Vietnam. And, all the while, LBJ and Bobby Kennedy steeled themselves for their inevitable conflict over the legacy of John Kennedy, control of the Democratic Party, and leadership of the nation.

During 1964 the Republicans, under Barry Goldwater, began their long march to the right and George Wallace suggested to Richard Nixon a “Southern strategy” for 1968. In Mississippi, civil rights workers were slain. Across the nation, young men burned draft cards. A young boxer named Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston for boxing’s heavyweight championship. And, on Friday, February 7, the Beatles arrived in New York—appropriately enough, on Pan Am Flight 101 which landed at recently renamed John F. Kennedy International Airport. The “Sixties” had begun.

In The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964: The Beginning of the “Sixties”, Jon Margolis, veteran reporter for the Chicago Tribune, fashions a vivid, kaledioscopic portrait of a brief but startling time when America began a long, strange trip that, in many ways, has not ended yet.