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A History Of Counterculture In The 1950s History Essay

The Beat Writers were the pre-hippies, the rebellious teenagers, and the defiance of their generation. They had an explicit effect on the Eisenhowerian society, one of stay at home mothers who cooked and cleaned, one of intolerance and segregation. Their influential writings reflected a persona of a more modern generation, a tolerance not found anywhere else in their time. Their literature is rated as some of the best literature of the 20th century. The Beat Writers’ writings reflected their lives, even as much as being autobiographical. The effect they had on American society was extraordinary and they provided the basis for jumpstarting the civil rights and social reform movements. In this paper, Beat Writers, Beat Generation and the term “beatnik” will be used interchangeably. The Beat Writers of the 1950s redefine American culture and pushed the boundaries of the socially acceptable.

Not many people have heard of the Beat Writers as their influence in America is hard to discern in the modern world. Their writings started around 60 years ago, originally in New York before moving to the San Francisco Bay area. The most famous Beat Writers were Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs, but many others such as Neal Cassady were part of the group. They all shared a common interest in drugs, more specifically psychedelic drugs and marijuana. The Beat Writers also had multiple bisexual or gay members; their writings reflected an extremely tolerant sexual attitude, on topics considered “taboo” at the time, such as interracial romance and group sex. Their interests included spiritual enlightenment and a rejection of materialistic ideas common in mainstream culture, as well as an interest in poetry.

“We are the change that we seek.” – Barack Obama

The social norm in the 1950s was a modernist traditional one; the women who were working during WWII now had to put on an apron when the GIs came home. The domestic society seemed to move backward instead of forward. Sexual topics or references were considered forbidden and taboo and most writers did not mention them. The Beat Generation was a new thing; Chester MacPhee was quoted as saying, “The words and the sense of the writing is obscene … you wouldn’t want your children to come across it.” However, it seemed the American people were appreciative of something new. Brown vs. Board of Ed happened two years earlier; the time was one of change. The Beat Generation provided the subtle spark for this change.

"To rebel! That is the immediate objective of poets! We can not wait and will not be held back...The "poetic marvelous" and the unconscious are the true inspirers of rebels and poets."-Philip Lamantia

When Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was published in 1957, people such as M. L. Rosenthal, the founder of the Poetic Institute at NYU, responded to the poem as “very simply, this is poetry of genuine suffering”, but MacPhee, an employee of San Francisco Customs deemed the poem too obscene. This led to an obscenity trial in 1957, where the owner of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was put on trial for selling obscene materials. The American Civil Liberties Union sent forth the famous J.W. Elrich, a criminal defense lawyer, to defend Ferlinghetti. City Lights was made famous by the case; Judge Clayton Horn declared the work Howl and Other poems was not obscene and was of “redeeming social importance”. This ruling sparked attention to the poem’s author, Allen Ginsberg, selling 20,000 copies in the first year of publication. Howl has now sold over a million copies.

In the same year, On the Road was published. It was an instant bestseller; the New York Times proclaimed it “as the novel of the Beat Generation”. On the Road was a transcription of Kerouac’s friends and fellow Beats; in short, it was an autobiography of a few trips Kerouac made around North America. The names were changed from the actual people to pseudonyms for legal reasons.

In 1957, when Howl was published, it generated a response that was not exactly favorable yet was acknowledged by critics as the landmark poem of the Beat Generation. The poem was ruled publishable after an obscenity trial, and the ruling set a precedent for the American public. Yet even in the modern world, there is still controversy about the poem being aired. The effect of the publication as summarized by Ginsberg included “liberation of the world from censorship” and “spiritual liberation”. The Beat Generation as a whole had more than a marginal effect on the American populace, however.

The year is 1960. Beatnik culture has now turned into hippie culture. Allen Ginsberg is now considered a “hippie” and a part of the counterculture of the 1960s. The culture of America is a more tolerant one, especially after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which stated that discrimination is henceforth banned on the basis of “race, color, religion, or national origin”, as well as other laws and policies passed in Congress. These laws, including the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Immigration and Nationality Services Act were passed because of action taken by years of peaceful protests and sit-ins by protesters, including hippies and African-American activists. The 50s counterculture movements led to these movements in their inspirational writings as well as the fact that several notable members of the Beat Generation joined these counterculture movements. Neal Cassady, the star character of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road started off fresh with The Merry Pranksters, a group of pre-hippies who advocated for peace and understanding as well as the use of illicit drugs. The Grateful Dead, popularized by the hippie music movement, had even written a song about the group, entitled “That’s It For The Other One”. The hippie ideology is itself a mirror image of the beatniks; it was based on the use of illicit psychedelic drugs such as LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide), listening to counterculture rock music like the Grateful Dead and The Beatles, and an explicit embrace of the sexual revolution. All of these ideals tie into each other and form a certain fundamental understanding that inspired the Beat Writers and hippies alike. In fact, the iconic groups of the hippie counterculture took direct inspiration from the beatniks. The name of the Beatles comes from the phrase Beatnik, according to Jack Kerouac, who spelled the name with an “a” apparently because of the Beat influence.

Allen Ginsberg sums up the effect of the Beat Generation in his summary, A Definition of the Beat Generation, in which he states that the there are a couple different outputs into culture and ideals. Most of those outputs were directly from Beat ideals; others such as the “evolution of rhythm and blues into a higher art form” and “respect for the land and indigenous people and animals” were indirect. His understanding of the extent of the Beat influence let him make more accurate conclusions than most people. However, his conclusions are those of an insider; a individual who has a comprehensive viewpoint into the world of Beat. Other Beats had ideas about the environment; the supposed “notion of a Fresh Planet”, which later provided the basis for the hippie ideal of caring for the environment. In particular, this idea of “deep ecology”, the philosophy of environmental ethics and earthen spirituality resulted from the ideas in the Beat generation.

The Beats also left behind them a musical legacy; not one of their own music but an inspiration to other’s music. Bob Dylan, a Grammy and Golden Globe winning musician, was good friends with Allen Ginsberg, and Dylan states that Kerouac and Ginsberg were major influences in his work. Rollingstone magazine ranked him as number 2 in their all-time best artists list. His music reflected social unrest and counterculture; it was very popular with the counterculture movement in the 1960s. The Merry Pranksters, as mentioned earlier, contained future members of the Grateful Dead, a extremely popular music group among fans of psychedelia and hippies. The Grateful Dead had massive followings of fans and had a three decade career in the music industry. William Burroughs was also friends and influences of Mick Jagger and Bono of U2, both extremely popular musicians.

Many bands and artists leave tribute to the Beat Generation; most of these groups are representative of similar ideals, but with a more modern outlook. For instance, the group They Might Be Giants, an alternative rock group, writes songs that utilize counterculture lyrics and experimental instrumentation. They mention in their song I Should Be Allowed to Think the first two lines of Howl; “I saw the best minds of my generation, destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical” and then proceeds with the rest of the song. Yet even their indirect musical contributions remain part of a bigger picture of their cultural effect.

"I am going to marry my novels and have little short stories for children."

-Jack Kerouac

Probably the most obvious and important contribution to culture and society was the Beat’s literature. Howl, Naked Lunch, and On the Road each represented a different opinion on the same genre of ideals. Notable writers such as Thomas Pynchon, the author of Gravity’s Rainbow, cites the Beat Generation as a major influence. Experts compare his work to William S. Burroughs. Pychon himself explains,

“At the simplest level, it had to do with language. We were encouraged from many directions--Kerouac and the Beat writers, the diction of Saul Bellow in The Adventures of Augie March, emerging voices like those of Herbert Gold and Philip Roth--to see how at least two very distinct kinds of English could be allowed in fiction to coexist. Allowed! It was actually OK to write like this! Who knew? The effect was exciting, liberating, strongly positive.”

Other writers, including Amiri Baraka, who published several Beat writers such as Kerouac and Ginsberg, turned their viewpoints into other genres of counterculture activists. Amri Baraka became a black nationalist in the 1960s after separating from the white Beat Generation. His poems and writings have become famous; he has also taught at Rutgers University.

The overall effect of the Beat Generation was a positive countercultural one, an effect where the explicit was allowed, illicit psychedelic drugs were not generally allowed but used anyway, spiritual enlightenment became popular; especially among hippies and activists; and the society and culture of the Western hemisphere became a more understanding and open-minded society. “The so-called Beat Generation was a whole bunch of people, of all different nationalities, who came to the conclusion that society sucked,” as stated by Amiri Baraka; and they did something about society.

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