The American Counterculture

The American Counterculture

Christopher Gair
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 240
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The American Counterculture
    Book Description:

    The American counterculture played a major role during a pivotal moment in American history. Post-War prosperity combined with the social and political repression characteristic of middle-class life to produce both widespread civil disobedience and artistic creativity in the Baby Boomer generation.This introduction explores the relationship between the counterculture and American popular culture. It looks at the ways in which Hollywood and corporate record labels commodified and adapted countercultural texts, and the extent to which countercultural artists and their texts were appropriated. It offers an interdisciplinary account of the economic and social reasons for the emergence of the counterculture, and an appraisal of the key literary, musical, political and visual texts which were seen to challenge dominant ideologies.Key Features:*examines the ways in which texts were seen to be countercultural*assesses the extent to which they represented real opposition to cultural orthodoxies*scrutinises the notion of the counterculture*examines the limits to and achievements of the counterculture*places key countercultural figures and texts in context of the shifting wider social and political climate of the United States*uses case studies to illuminate the text.

    eISBN: 978-0-7486-2909-1
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[iv])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [v]-[vi])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    It is tempting to start this book with a tidy narrative of origins that identifies one seminal moment as the countercultural Big Bang from which all the radical social and political movements of the 1950s and ’60s evolved. Perhaps the morning in July 1947 when Jack Kerouac stacked the pages of his then half-written novel The Town and the City in a neat pile, said goodbye to his mother, and headed for Route 6 and his first transcontinental adventure. Maybe it would be better to think of Miles Davis cutting class at, and later dropping out of, the Juilliard School...

  4. Part One: 1945-1960
    • Introduction
      (pp. 17-36)

      Despite some recent attempts to revisit the 1950s more critically, many conservative Americans continue to look back at the decade as a golden age of ideological consensus. Thus, although movies such as Quiz Show (1994), Pleasantville and The Truman Show (both 1998) peep beneath the veneer of small town or suburban domestic contentment, the era is still celebrated by those on the political right as a time of sexual innocence, cultural accord, and moral and economic stability. For them, the ’50s was a period when Americans united against the threat from the Soviet Union and Communism, and benefited from the...

    • CHAPTER ONE Fiction
      (pp. 37-55)

      Asked once to define the Transcendentalists, James Freeman Clark replied that they were ‘a club of the likeminded, I suppose, because no two of us thought alike’.³ Much the same could be said of the ‘Beat Generation’, whose leading writers each worked from a very different agenda and composed highly distinctive literature. Like the Transcendentalists a century before, the Beats shared an emphasis on self-reliance and on efforts to create their work spontaneously – Jack Kerouac developed a writing habit that he labelled ‘spontaneous prose’ and most of the Beats preached (even if they did not practise) Allen Ginsberg’s mantra of...

    • CHAPTER TWO Music
      (pp. 56-76)

      Broadly speaking, it is possible to summarise the Beat aesthetic under a small range of influences and interests. In literature, the poetic tradition of Blake and Whitman, alongside a wider indebtedness to the American Renaissance, and twentieth-century poets such as William Carlos Williams and Hart Crane, contributed to the emphasis on personal, often confessional, texts such as ‘Howl’ and On the Road. Like Whitman, the Beats were happy to collapse the divide between high and popular culture, being as willing to celebrate The Shadow (Kerouac, Amiri Baraka) or Lana Turner (Frank O’Hara) as to cite Melville or Pound. This concern...

    • CHAPTER THREE Painting
      (pp. 77-96)

      The canonisation of Jackson Pollock as the tortured genius of post-war American art has tended to reinvent him as a soul brother to other iconic countercultural figures such as Jack Kerouac, Charlie Parker, Lenny Bruce and James Dean. In this narrative, Pollock exemplifies the alienated artist struggling to produce original work within a culture of consumption defined by its obsession with mass-produced objects. Pollock’s painterly techniques – especially the dripping that led to Time magazine dubbing him ‘Jack the Dripper’ – have encouraged many critics to draw comparisons across genres; with bop improvisation, with the spontaneous prose associated with Kerouac and other...

      (pp. 97-116)

      There are, of course, differences in the respective relationships between novelists, painters, musicians and film-makers and their audiences. It was possible for Jack Kerouac to write the majority of his oeuvre in the long gap between the publication of his first book, The Town and the City (1950), and his second, On the Road (1957). He could do so because the production costs inherent in fiction-writing are insignificant and he was able to support himself via the periods of unskilled labour that counterbalanced his travels in and beyond America. Although the search for publishers was a constant source of frustration...

  5. Part Two: 1961-1972
    • Introduction
      (pp. 119-138)

      Following the death of the Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia on 9 August 1995, a tie-dye flag was flown at half-mast over San Francisco’s City Hall. Tributes were paid by legions of Dead Heads, including then President Bill Clinton, and a few days after the funeral fans gathered in Golden Gate Park to listen to the group’s music and share personal and collective reminiscences.⁴ In keeping with the ideology of (many of) his generation, some of Garcia’s ashes were scattered in the Ganges, the rest in the sea by the Golden Gate. The ’60s had been over for a quarter...

    • CHAPTER FIVE Fiction
      (pp. 139-160)

      There are both ruptures and continuities between the Beat Generation and the countercultural fiction of the 1960s. Jack Kerouac – whose On the Road is unquestionably the iconic Beat novel – seemed both to him and to many others to belong in another America. On the one hand, On the Road celebrates the kind of individualism increasingly challenged by the more collective ideals of the ’60s; on the other, the explosion of anti-Establishment movements that rejected his largely conservative views about the United States appalled Kerouac. At heart, he remained the small-town Catholic child of French Canadian joual-speaking parents, eulogising such staples...

    • CHAPTER SIX Music
      (pp. 161-181)

      During the 1960s the music of the counterculture was transformed rapidly and repeatedly. At the start of the decade, the revival of interest in traditional American songs led to a folk boom coupling political protest with a near-obsessive insistence on the use of acoustic instruments in a quest for ‘authenticity’. By 1969, the year of Woodstock, a much larger countercultural community would think nothing of a festival combining Joan Baez with Jimi Hendrix, Richie Havens with The Who. Although such transformations involved a large element of accommodation to the American corporate economy, they also signalled a more overtly political slant...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN Painting
      (pp. 182-200)

      In my discussion of Abstract Expressionism, I highlighted tensions inherent in the relationship between the New York avant-garde and the counterculture of the 1950s. On the one hand, it is evident that there are clear formal similarities between Action Painting, jazz and Beat writing in the emphasis on ‘spontaneity’ and in the creation of works that challenged traditional notions of artistic representation. On the other, the ease with which the paintings of Jackson Pollock and many other artists were incorporated and deployed by governmental and private institutions keen to highlight American exceptionalism within the climate of the Cold War is...

      (pp. 201-222)

      Whereas 1950s youth movies such as Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild One appeared just too soon to be accompanied by a rock and roll soundtrack and, retrospectively, seem bereft of the ‘authenticating’ qualities that this would provide, the best-known Hollywood countercultural films of the late 1960s, such as The Graduate (1968), Easy Rider (1969) and Woodstock (1970/1994), are all but defined by their music. In the case of Woodstock, this is self-evident, since the movie is a record of probably the most famous rock festival of all time; according to Peter Fonda, Easy Rider’s central characters were based...

  6. Index
    (pp. 223-234)