If I do say so myself, this was a fun challenge. Deliberately reading three books and a poetry collection from (gasp) 1959 provided a window into society that I otherwise would not have had.
Each book included major themes of social expectation, rebellion and conformity. Pursuit of the Prodigal showed the cultural pressures on men in a wealthy class, Mrs. Bridge provided a more middle-class, female perspective, and Goodbye, Columbus used generational and Jewish/WASP contrasts to explore the same themes. If these books are "true" in the ways that the best fiction is "true"--reflecting the heart and soul of their society--it's no wonder that the 1960's ushered in an era of rebellion where freedom, authenticity, and experimentation were emphasized.
Each of these books seemed somewhat dated by its details of customs and morality, but the same could be said of works from other time frames. (I mean, really, whether a woman is wearing a toga, a gown, a veil, a bustle, a corset, a flapper dress, or a girdle pretty much tells you what you need to know, at least if you have a clue about fashion, right?) I certainly felt immersed in the culture of those times while reading them. I also understood my own family customs a little better. Anyone else remember how important things like having the boss over for dinner and hosting cocktail parties used to be to the art of home entertaining?
Perhaps it isn't surprising that the Selected Poems of Stanley Kunitz, published that same year, bears none of these hallmarks. One of the things I like best about poetry is the way poets keep their eyes on the big picture. Unlike fashions in clothing and entertaining, nature, religion, war, and human feeling never go out of style.