Whether you know it or not, the 1950s birthed some of the greatest literature the world has ever seen – much of which is still taught in our schools, read to our children and adapted for film and television today.
During this time, a series of influential authors, such as J.D. Salinger, Dr. Seuss, and J.R.R. Tolkien wrote and published a number of books that would make their mark for generations to come.
In this post, we’ve put together a list of 25 of the most influential and recognizable stories ever produced in the 50s. If you want to expand your collection, you’ve come to the right place!
About 1950s Literature
Each decade has its own collection of standout authors, however, the 50s had more than its fair share.
The 1950s was also a time when a number of authors came to challenge the status quo, and explored controversial themes often unseen in literature before.
Some of the best books of the time are the ones that left readers feeling emotional, perplexed, or even a little offended.
Many of these authors made it their duty to discuss the surrounding issues, such as racism, and regularly pondered the future of society, and how bleak it may look if such behaviors continued.
In other words, anger was the driving force behind much of the literature seen in the 1950s, especially in British literature – this was a trend that continued into the late 20th century and beyond, and it continued to inspire many more dystopian novels and heartfelt novellas that explored complex human themes and emotions.
Although many of these books are seen here in our list, you’ll also see a number of fantasy books, too.
The fantasy genre as we know it was changed forever in the 50s, primarily due to the world of J.R.R. Tolkien (which you’ll find on this list).
Fantasy and dystopian fiction earned new places in society, and many of the stories written in this time period became instant classics that are still highly revered today.
Let’s begin our list with one of the most recognizable books of the 50s. ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ hit bookstores in 1951, and since its release, this compelling bildungsroman has become one of the most popular and controversial novels in history.
When 16-year-old protagonist Holden Caulfield is expelled from school, he becomes confused, emotionally unstable, and full of angst. Holden’s loneliness and isolation are central to the book, as is a loss of innocence.
As Holden battles against his own demons, we’re walked through his tale of emotional turmoil and violence, in an unusual ‘coming of age’ style tale that was initially received with indifference.
However, over the years, The Catcher in the Rye has become an influential piece of literature, and despite its controversial content that even led to it being banned from school curriculums, remains an impressive demonstration of Salinger’s unique abilities, and the complexities of mental illness and the human condition.
- Deep meanings
- Realistic portrayals of loneliness, isolation, and depression
- Mature and profane content is unsuitable for young readers
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, written in 1955, became an instant hit due to its controversial subject matter, which left readers disgusted and fascinated in equal parts.
Lolita follows the story of literature professor Humbert Humbert, who ‘falls in love’ with his landlady’s twelve-year-old daughter.
He sees this young girl as the incarnation of his lost lover, and what ensues is a destructive, perverse, and disturbing relationship that thrust ‘Lolita’ into US Bestseller territory, and it sold over 100,000 copies in its first three weeks.
To this day, Vladimir Nabokov’s unusual story continues to divide opinions, and leaves some disgusted, while others are utterly enthralled. This unusual tale can be hard to read, but it’s one you won’t want to miss.
- Well written
- Disturbing content that may be hard for some readers to digest
A 1950s book roundup wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
This unique dystopian novel was released in 1953 by esteemed author Ray Bradbury, and his readers usually regard it as one of his best works.
Fahrenheit 451 follows the tale of Guy Montag, a fireman whose job is to censor literature and destroy the circulation of knowledge to the masses.
After becoming disillusioned with his role, Guy switches up his roles and soon becomes a brazen book reader, despite living in a society that condemns and attempts to eliminate any material that confuses or disturbs the status quo.
With a harsh stance against censorship and a strong emphasis on the importance of literature, Fahrenheit 451 is a timeless book that continues to excite, inspire, and resonate with readers, decades after its publication.
- Unique storyline that was bold for its time
- Full of assumptions and vague symbolism which can leave the meaning open to interpretation
Let’s take a trip back to your childhood, with The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss.
Released in 1957, The Cat in the Hat has since become one of the most influential children’s books of all time.
Dr. Seuss takes us on the journey of two siblings who befriend a very cheeky cat in a hat, who appears when their parents go out of town.
The cat in the hat wreaks havoc in his classic red and white-striped hat and tie and uses poetic verse and inventive language to tell the tale.
The Cat in the Hat is a timeless book that continues to amuse generations of children (and adults!) across the world.
- Comedic and exciting
- Uniquely written
- May be a little too tongue-tying for young readers
In 1952, author Mary Norton bought us The Borrowers. This unique children’s fantasy novel became an instant hit and is best loved for its tiny people and inventive storyline that will keep younger readers utterly enthralled until the end.
The Borrowers features a family of unusually tiny characters who live in the floors and the walls of a home occupied by regular humans.
In this witty, wholesome novel, author Mary Norton truly brings the imagination of children to life in ways that few other authors have done before, or since its release.
This bold and imaginative story even manages to explore themes such as gender and social class, all while entertaining and exciting children.
- Exciting and imaginative
- Unique storyline
- Open to interpretation, so it may fail to resonate with some readers
Charlotte’s Web was published in October 1952 and is one of the world’s most undisputed children’s classics.
Charlotte’s Web tells the tale of a livestock pig called Wilbur who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a spider named Charlotte.
When Wilbur finds out he’s destined to be sent to the slaughter, a story of courage, self-sacrifice, and an incredible friendship ensues.
This emotional and imaginative story boasts several highly-acclaimed film adaptations and remains one of the most popular children’s stories of all time.
- Strong moral lesson
- Inventive storyline
- Themes of death evoke strong emotion and may be too upsetting for some young readers
The Lord of the Rings is the first installment in the epic fantasy trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien.
If I asked you to name a book series that’s also a household name, The Lord of the Rings would definitely be one of them. In July 1954, J.R.R. Tolkien changed fantasy literature forever with the release of The Lord of the Rings.
In Middle Earth, the Dark Lord Sauron seeks a ring that has the power to control the whole world, and also corrupt its owner.
Frodo, a young hobbit, finds the ring and begins a journey to reach Mount Doom – the only place where the ring can be destroyed.
Battles against internal and external evil dominate this book, with an overarching message to never give up on your goals, no matter how futile they might seem.
- Exciting characters
- Unique plot
- Rich fantasy world
- The book is so different from reality, that it can be quite difficult to read and imagine
In 1958, Truman Capote published the novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s which tells the story of a contemporary writer who details his experiences and acquaintances in the city, namely with Holly Golightly living in New York City.
Holly is transformed from a former Hillbilly into a luxury playgirl who enters an elite circle of friends.
Holly is unique, independent, and glamorous, and an ode to those who are bold enough to dream. Nothing bad can ever happen to you at Tiffany’s.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s is an iconic, heartfelt, classic book that will be loved for generations to come.
- Intriguing storyline
- Easy to read
- Many agree that the film is better and that the book feels slightly dull in comparison
Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago was published in Italy in 1957, and it soon made waves across the world for its epic story of the life and love stories of a poet and physician living through the Russian Revolution.
This novel was banned in the Soviet Union until 1988, and it takes its readers through an emotional, heartfelt exploration of the effects of the Russian Revolution through protagonist Yuri Zhivago, who finds himself caught between two lovers against the backdrop of war.
- Complex plot
- Emotional storylines
- Some characters feel a bit too complex
- The main character can feel frustrating and unrelatable
C.S. Lewis is one of the most famous children’s fantasy authors of all time – and for good reason.
In 1950. C.S. Lewis released one of the most recognizable children’s stories in the world, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.
This incredible story follows the lives of four siblings who are sent to the country to lie with their uncle in World War II, only to find the mysterious world of Narnia hidden inside their wardrobe…
Expect plenty of talking animals, mythical creatures, and a thrilling storyline that will keep both adults and children on their toes.
- This bizarre fantasy world may be too complex for some readers to find appealing
In 1954, Dr. Seuss released another of his most famous books – Horton Hears a Who.
If you’re a lover of the charm, wit, and incredible literary style of Dr. Seuss, you’ll love this story which follows the life of Horton the elephant, who embarks on a mission to save the inhabitants of Whoville, a planet situated on a small speck of dust.
Horton Hears a Who is considered one of Dr. Seuss’s most iconic works, and it has been loved by children for decades. Imaginative, emotional, and distinctly witty, this is one children’s tale that stands the test of time.
- Beautifully illustrated
- Unique plot
- The rhymes may be too ‘tongue-twisty’, and go over the heads of younger readers
In 1950, author Isaac Asimov released his science fiction novel I, Robot, which modern readers may recognize from the blockbuster film adaptation, featuring actor Will Smith.
I, Robot is a collection of nine short stories that imagine and discuss the development of humans as if they were blended with artificial intelligence and the implications of using such technology.
These intriguing stories spark plenty of questions surrounding the human condition and technology, such as whether humans are intelligent enough to understand the consequences of such developments.
I, Robot has always been a poignant read, but as the years go by, it becomes an even more relatable, albeit slightly scary, read.
- Although the author is a product of his time, this book is inherently sexist, which may make it an unpleasant read for some
In 1952, Ralph Ellison published his first novel, Invisible Man. Ellison’s debut novel follows the story of a young black man, who is expelled from his university after offending a wealthy patron.
The book highlights many of the societal issues faced by African Americans in the early 20th century and was immediately hailed as a masterpiece upon its release.
“I am an invisible man” will haunt you. This heartfelt tale can be a difficult but insightful read that will sit with you for years to come, and it’s a must-read for anyone looking to expand their collection of thought-provoking 1950s literature.
- Insightful, unsettling plot
- Some historical context is needed to fully engage with the text
British author Doris Lessing released her debut novel, The Grass is Singing, in 1950.
The novel is set in South Africa under white rule and explores several hard-hitting topics such as relationships, the effects of racism, and power struggles.
The Grass is Singing is a complex novel with many complex characters that help weave together this unique narrative littered with pain, tragedy, and intrigue.
This critical novel helped Lessing make her mark in the literary world, and like Invisible Man, it’s a poignant read that explores some hard-hitting topics and can make for unsettling reading at times.
- Murder-mystery style plot
- Explores poignant themes
- Many characters feel undeveloped and unlikeable
Nigerian author Chinua Achebe released his debut novel in 1958, Things Fall Apart.
This tale is often considered the most widely read book in African literature, and it’s a simple story that follows the life of a strong man named Okonkwo, who is the leader of an Igbo community.
The story follows the events that led up to his banishment, the accidental murder of a clansman, his exile, and much more.
Ultimately, the story addresses socio-political issues in Africa at the time and has even been banned in some places due to its portrayals of European colonialism.
If you love learning about colonial history from marginalized perspectives, you’ll adore this novel, even if it is fictional.
- Intriguing storyline
- The plot can feel a little haphazard with an ever-evolving set of characters
Highly revered author John Steinbeck released his novel East of Eden in September 1952, and it quickly became one of his most ambitious novels or his ‘magnum opus’.
In East of Eden, two families (The Trasks and the Hamiltons), have complex, interwoven stories set in California’s farmland, that follow their human crises, their humor, and their lives, essentially giving a voice to the generation facing the Great Depression.
East of Eden tackles several complex, and distinctly human, subjects including family, free will, individualism, hard work, and religion.
This beautifully written, relatable novel became successful very quickly and received the Nobel Prize in 1962.
If you’re a lover of other Steinbeck novels such as The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, you won’t be disappointed by the beauty that is East of Eden.
- Relatable plot line
- Intriguing characters
- The plot can feel a little too simple and predictable in places
The 1950s produced some of the most popular, influential reads of the century, and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is no exception.
Lord of the Flies was released in 1954 and tells the story of a group of young evacuated schoolboys who find themselves alone on a tropical island after their plane was shot down.
With no adults in sight, the boys celebrate their freedom. However, their own attempts to build a civilization turn sour.
Lord of the Flies explores some complex themes, including savagery vs. civilization, the nature of humanity, how people influence nature, good and evil, and the loss of innocence.
This classic book is considered one of Golding’s finest works, and it’s arguably one of the most recognizable stories in the world.
- Exploration of complex themes, such as humanity and its hypocrisy
- Intriguing plot line
- Some aspects of the plot feel bare and undeveloped
The 1959 novel The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass is a truly unique tale that readers either love or hate. The Tin Drum is written as the alleged autobiography of a dwarf who lives through Nazi Germany.
The book is told from the perspective of our narrator, Oskar Matzerath, and told from the inside of an insane asylum.
As Oskar grows through the rise of the Third Reich and Nazism, he recalls how he copes, explores the dynamics of his family, and relays the political events that go on around him.
The Tin Drum has been critically acclaimed, however, some readers may find it difficult to get through.
- Unique storyline
- Complex characters
- Confusing structure and the ‘magic’ is often lost is abnormally lengthy descriptions
In 1951, John Wyndham released his English science-fiction novel, The Day of the Triffids.
After a strange meteor shower blankets the earth and leaves most of its inhabitants completely blind, a strangely aggressive species of plant emerges and starts killing people.
The theme of vision is key to this story, and it’s explored in both a symbolic and literal manner.
This dystopian, and sometimes terrifying novel, has become a classic read that’s destined to stay burned strongly in your memory.
- Frightening with a simple hypothesis
- Many notable themes
- Some characters feel bland and add little to the story
Now, we’ll turn our attention to another 1950s classic: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams.
This unique, three-part play was written by Tennessee Williams and released in 1952, and it follows the story of Brick, an ex-football player and alcoholic who, upon having a reunion with his father, finds himself at the heart of a number of shocking revelations.
This Southern play follows a series of intense themes, including sexual desire and repression, greed, deceit, self-delusion, and more.
Even if you’ve watched the play, reading it adds a whole new dimension to the story.
- Exploration of unique themes for the time, such as gender roles, homosexuality, and homophobia
- Mysterious plot and intriguing characters
- The plot can feel a little too complex with not enough time to resolve the pressing questions
In 1958, American author Shirley Jackson released her classic gothic horror novel The Haunting of Hill House.
The story follows the lives of Dr. Montague, Eleanor, Luke, and Theodora, who end up at Hill House – their encounters soon lead to a series of unexplained phenomena, terrifying encounters, and unpredictable secrets about the house itself, which appears to be just as alive as they are.
This subtly psychologically, beautifully terrifying book is one of the best in its genre, and Jackson’s unique, intelligent writing style makes for an unforgettable read. This is one you’ll want to pick up time and time again.
- Fascinating characters
- Lacks some suspense
Giovanni’s Room is a 1956 novel written by novelist, essayist, and playwright James Baldwin.
The book follows the story of David, a young white American expat who is living in the South of France, and struggling to come to terms with his sexuality.
After a homosexual encounter in his adolescence, David suppresses his impulses which sparks an intense internal (and external) battle with himself and his identity.
Giovanni’s room is a key setting recalled by our narrator and one that’s essential to the story.
This elegant, heartfelt story is unsettling, emotional, and feels like nothing short of a gut punch. If you need a good cry, this is one book that’ll deliver.
- Well-developed characters
- The plot may feel too simple and predictable for some
In 1951, American Author Ernest Hemingway released his highly acclaimed novella, The Old Man and the Sea.
This story is set off the coast of Havana and features an old man, a young boy, and a huge fish. This short novel follows the story of Santiago the fisherman, and his streak of bad luck out at sea
Although the story may not sound like much, it’s often considered one of Hemingway’s greatest literary works, and it explores several influential themes such as the human condition, pride, honor in struggle, love, old age, and youth.
This heartfelt tale is an emotional whirlwind that proves that not all stories have to be complex to have a profound effect on their readers.
- Interesting characters and setting
- Basic plot
- Some of the characters’ behaviors can feel frustrating
Last on our list of 1950s classics is Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs.
Naked Lunch, sometimes called The Naked Lunch, was published in 1959 by American writer William S. Burroughs, and it’s sometimes considered one of the most shocking novels in the English language… is that enough to pique your interest?
Naked Lunch is a witty, groundbreaking story that’s a loose collection of vignettes, all of which can be read in any order.
Expect plenty of depictions of controversial topics and some truly bizarre plots that will leave you scratching your head, but desperate for more…
- Creative and mind-bending
- Controversial but intriguing
- It may be a little too outlandish for some readers
The 1950s was a pivotal time in literature. Authors such as James Baldwin, Ray Bradbury, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Ernest Hemingway were some of the most distinctive writers of the decade, and their works are still read, taught, and analyzed even today.
Although anger was the driving force behind many of these books, some of this anger is still relevant today.
Though not all of the historical contexts that influenced these works will still resonate, modern readers will still feel struck by many of the themes and the narrator’s perspectives, which is why these classics will never die.
Whether you were introduced to them at school or during your own leisure reading, you’re probably familiar with many of the books on this list.
Whether you’re looking for a striking children’s book, a dystopian novel, or a fantasy land to lose yourself in, you’ll find something on this list to suit every reader, both big and small.
We hope you’ve enjoyed exploring this selection of 1950s literary classics, and who knows, you may find your next read above!
Frequently Asked Questions
What Were Common Themes In Literature In The 1950s?
Anger, uprising, inequality, and isolation were some of the most common themes in 1950s literature.
Who Were American Authors In The 1950s?
Some of the most popular American authors of the decade included Richard Yates, Saul Bellow, J.D. Salinger, Saul Bellow, and Ernest Hemingway.
Who Were The English Authors In The 1950s?
Dors Lessing, John Wyndham, Robert Conquest, and Elizabeth Jennings were some of the most popular English authors of the 1950s, but not all produced many more successful works after the end of the decade.
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