Discover the best 1950s books with these timeless classic books spanning from books on WWII to popular novels of the fifties.
When you think about the 1950s, you think of the booming post-war economy and the rise of the middle class, but along with the effect of a more affluent society came a terrifying fear as a Cold War brewed between the United States and the Soviet Union in the fifties.
As part of my Read Through the Decades series, I wanted to take a deeper look at 20th century literature, examining both historical fiction from each decade as well as books published in each decade.
Along with such famous 1950s books as The Catcher in the Rye and On the Road, you’ll find other modern classic books written in the 1950s that showcase how much the world was changing. You see this divisiveness in books set in the 1950s with characters trying to find their place in this new post-world war era.
It’s astounding to think of the staying power of novels written decades ago. If you are interested in classics, you’ll want to try one of these classic books of the 1950s.
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Best 1950s Books
Elie Wiesel’s story is a heart-wrenching account that shows no mercy. Sent to the German concentration camp of Auschwitz with his father, Wiesel gives a no-holds-bar recollection of the horror he faced. You’ll find yourself gripped to the page at the absolute devastation the Holocaust inflicted on a teenage boy. It is our responsibility to read Holocaust books like this, no matter how depressing, so that we truly understand the horror of these events to ensure they don’t happen again.
With its focus on the message of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, East of Eden is often considered one of Steinbeck’s greatest novels. Set in the Salinas Valley of California, the story follows Adam Trask, a wealthy man whose troubles with his brother are paralleled in his own twin sons. Covering the power of love and the pain of its absence, East of Eden is enduring classic literature for your to-read list.
How much does higher intelligence contribute to living a better life? The tale of a mentally disabled man who undergoes an experiment that increases his IQ to an insanely high level will make you ponder the benefits and drawbacks of both high and low intelligence. Keep tissues handy, it’s one of the 1950s books that will make you cry.
Who is John Galt? Ayn Rand’s modern classic tells the (extremely long) tale of Dagny Taggart, an heir to the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad who will do anything she can to keep her family’s railroad running. As Dagny and fellow industrialist Henry Reardon struggle to stay afloat amid public outcry against greed, industry, and productivity, Rand uses her story to explain her philosophy of Objectivism.
Okonkwo is an influential leader of the fictional Ibo tribe living in what is modern-day Nigeria. A feared leader and wrestling champion, Okonkwo is obsessed with his masculinity, taking out his temper on his wife and kids. After Okonkwo’s family spends years in exile for an accidental death, they return home to find the village completely changed by European missionaries.
Literary 1950s Novels
J. D. Salinger
A classic tale of teenage angst, The Catcher in the Rye follows Holden Caulfield after he’s been expelled from school, again. Bouncing around New York City, Holden gives his opinion on anything and everything as he narrates his life. A classic coming-of-age book set in the 1950s, The Catcher in the Rye is written in a disjointed fashion, following along with Holden’s thoughts.
Vladimir Nabokov’s provocative classic tells of Humbert Humbert, a man who falls hopelessly in love with his landlady’s twelve-year-old daughter, Dolores Haze. Marrying Mrs. Haze just to be close to Dolores, Humbert eventually sexually abuses his stepdaughter, whom he nicknames “Lolita.” A beautifully written story about a deplorable subject, Lolita is one of the most controversial books published in the 1950s.
Ralph Ellison was the first African-American writer to win the Booker Prize for his debut novel, Invisible Man. Follow along with the unnamed Black narrator as he leaves the racist South to move to Harlem, which turns out to be just as inhospitable but in a different way. Ellison’s award-winning story expresses the struggle of feeling invisible and finding your identity.
Lorraine Hansberry’s stunning play tells of a Black family in South Side Chicago trying to improve their circumstances. Living with his wife, son, mother and younger sister, Walter Younger is hopeful that his father’s life insurance payout will lift the family from poverty. Instead, they find themselves faced with housing discrimination, racism, and the greed of others.
Based on actual people and events, The Crucible is a short classic play set during the Salem Witch Trials. In the 1690s, the townspeople of the small New England town of Salem are suddenly engulfed in rumors of witchcraft. The mass hysteria leads to the accusation and trial of Elizabeth Proctor for being a witch. Miller wrote the play in 1953 in a near perfect parallel of the McCarthy era communist trials, and reminds us still today to not let our fears run away with our senses. Miller says of it, “I am not sure what “The Crucible” is telling people now, but I know that its paranoid center is still pumping out the same darkly attractive warning that it did in the fifties.”
The epitome of the post-war Beat Generation, Jack Kerouac chronicles many of his own adventures traveling across the United States with his friends in his autobiographical novel On the Road. Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty road trip across America, meeting key individuals in the Beat movement and living a life of jazz, poetry, and drug use.
D. H. Lawrence
Married to an upper-class baron whose war injuries left him paralyzed, Constance seeks to escape her marriage by having an affair with the gamekeeper. Infamously banned as pornography, D. H. Lawrence’s classic novel details the extramarital affair of Lady Chatterley and explores the unfair dominance of the intellectuals over the working class.
Banned in the Soviet Union for thirty years, Doctor Zhivago focuses on how the Russian Revolution affected a middle-class family. Doctor Yury Zhivago is a poet, philosopher and physician and madly in love with Lara, the wife of a Revolutionary. Through two revolutions, two world wars and a famine, Doctor Zhivago beautifully describes a host of characters affected by the tumultuous events around them.
James A. Michener
Michener details the sprawling history of the Hawaii island, from its birth by volcanic eruptions to the initial discovery by Polynesian seafarers. The Polynesians flourished in the tropical paradise until American missionaries arrived in the early nineteenth century. With new traditions and customs, the Hawaiians and Americans try to learn to live together, only to have any balance torn asunder again with the arrival of Asian immigrants.
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Popular 1950s Books
With the start of the Cold War, Nevil Shute perfectly hints at the fear gripping America in one of his classic 1950s books. At the end of World War III, a small group of survivors await the coming nuclear fallout to descend upon them in southern Australia. When a faint Morse code signal arrives, American submarine captain Commander Dwight Towers leads his crew into the ruined world in search of survivors.
In 1953, Ian Fleming introduced the world to his infamous British secret agent, James Bond. Codenamed 007, Bond is sent to France to play in a high-stakes baccarat game against Le Chiffre, a villainous financier. Partnered with the beautiful and smart Vesper Lynd, the stakes are high for Bond, for Vesper has her own dark secret.
When two strangers meet on a train, everyday life becomes anything but ordinary. A successful architect in the middle of a divorce, Guy Haines happens to sit next to Charles Anthony Bruno on the train. Bruno, a total psychopath, manages to convince Haines to “swap murders” so they can each get away scot-free in this psychological thriller that was the inspiration for Alfred Hitchcock’s film of the same name.
Determined to gather evidence of the supernatural, Dr. Montague invites a slew of people with supernatural abilities or experiences with the occult to stay the summer at Hill House. Quickly the two young women and the young man who is heir to the house who accept Dr. Montague’s invitation learn that they are in deeper than they ever imagined.
Best known for the film adaptation starring an iconic Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a novella about the unnamed narrator’s neighbor, Holly Golightly. Living an affluent life in New York’s Upper East Side, Holly spends her days socializing with wealthy men who give her money and presents. Although searching for a rich older man to marry, Holly refuses to be caged.
World War II Books
With the Nazis occupying Holland, thirteen-year-old Jewish girl Anne Frank and her family went into hiding in the secret annex of an old office building. For two years, they hid with another family until they were betrayed to the Gestapo. Anne Frank’s diary gives a moving account of how a teenager experienced these world-shattering events and teaches of the Holocaust in such an intimate manner.
Written only six years after the end of World War II, The Caine Mutiny has astounding detail most modern authors can never hope to achieve because the story is heavily based on the author’s own experiences during the war. The story details the life aboard the U.S.S. Caine and the moral complexities of wartime decisions, especially the hard choices that need to be made by a captain at sea.
C. S. Forester
During World War II, Commander George Krause is given charge of a North Atlantic convoy. Although he’s served in the Navy for years, he’s never had a wartime assignment before. In the next 48 hours, he’ll be tested to the limit in U-boat infested waters.
If you love resourceful heroines, Nevil Shute’s classic novel is the perfect 1950s book for you. While living in Malaya during WWII, Englishwoman Jean Paget is captured by the Japanese and forced on a seven-month death march with other women. Through her fierce determination and the help of a captured Australian soldier, Jean and her group of women survive the war. When she learns the soldier is still alive, she immigrates to Australia with him and is determined to bring prosperity to his desolate hometown.
During the early days of World War II, Southern boy Gene Forrester attends an elite New Hampshire boarding school. Feeling insecure among the prep school kids, quite introverted Gene eventually becomes friends with the charming athletic Phineas. But when friendly competition goes awry, the consequences last a lifetime. A thought-provoking coming-of-age novel that quickly became an American classic.
Classic Sci Fi & Fantasy Books from the 1950s
In a far distant future, psycho-historian Hari Seldon has analyzed the cycle of history and realizes that after twelve thousand years in power, the Galactic Empire is headed toward collapse. A collapse that will spawn 30,000 years of Dark Ages. To prevent complete disaster and shorten this dark period, Seldon sets up Foundation – a planet on the edge of the galaxy to contain the best minds with all the knowledge of humanity. At crucial junctures in history, Seldon has set up steps to sway the course of events to protect the fledgling Foundation. Considered one of the best science-fiction books of all time, Isaac Asimov shines in this classic book published in the 1950s.
J. R. R. Tolkien
Tolkien swept the fantasy world by storm when he returned to the land of his children’s classic, The Hobbit, with an updated high fantasy novel. In ancient times, Sauron the Dark Lord created eleven rings of power but made one ring to rule them all. Lost for ages, the one ring has resurfaced in the Shire, where a hobbit named Frodo Baggins must set out on a quest to destroy the ring and save Middle-Earth.
In a world where printed books are outlawed, fireman Guy Montag begins to wonder what’s so dangerous about books. Fahrenheit 451 is a classic and serves as a warning against the dangers of censorship and the consequences of an addiction to television. Good dystopian books stay with you for a long time and Ray Bradbury’s prophetic novel doesn’t disappoint.
Ray Bradbury published The Martian Chronicles as a collection of science-fiction short stories, showcasing mankind’s attempts to colonize Mars. At first, humans die of The Great Loneliness, not being able to handle being so far from their home planet. When humans do begin to survive on Mars, the native shape-changing Martians deem them lunatics. As more and more humans come, humans bring more of their own prejudices, causing more and more conflicts with the Martians.
Robots must: (1) Never harm a human being or allow a human to come to harm; (2) Obey Human Orders; and (3) Protect their own existence as long as it doesn’t violate the first two laws. As robots become more sentient, humans and robots struggle to learn to live together, but humankind learns that when man tries to play god, there can be unintended consequences.
1950s Children’s Books
E. B. White
This beloved children’s classic follows the friendship of a spider named Charlotte and a pig named Wilbur. When the farmer wants to slaughter Wilbur, Charlotte begins leaving messages in her web praising the pig in hopes of sparing his life.
C. S. Lewis
Escaping the London Blitz, the four Pevensie children are sent to live in a large house in the English countryside. During a game of hide and seek, Lucy discovers a magical entry in the back of a wardrobe leading her to the magical land of Narnia. Yet, Narnia has been cursed by the White Witch to be a land of eternal winter. With the guidance of the Lion Aslan, Lucy, Peter, Susan, and Edmund try to help free Narnia of the wicked curse in this beloved series of children’s fantasy books.
Beverly Cleary expertly describes the mixed feelings of older sisters in this childhood classic. Beezus perfectly explains the plight of being the oldest. She’s old enough to be responsible for Ramona but young enough to be embarrassed by everything her sister does. To make it worse, Ramona is even more exasperating than most younger sisters, constantly causing all trouble, and getting all the attention, for her antics.
In Paul Gallico’s classic, a humble London charlady cleaning the houses of the rich stumbles upon an elegant Dior dress. Captivated by its beauty, Mrs. Harris scrimps and saves until she can afford a trip to Paris, not realizing how it will transform her life.
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How Do You Feel About 1950s Literature?
What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with my 1950s Books list? What books published in the 1950s have I forgotten? As always, let me know in the comments!
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