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The Counter-Culture of Post-War America

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  • 0:07 Postwar Mainstream Culture
  • 1:11 The Beat Generation…
  • 4:09 Other Counter-Culture Groups
  • 5:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, former middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will explore the counter-culture of the postwar era. We will examine the groups and individuals who defied the conventions of mainstream society.

Postwar Mainstream Culture

Before we examine the counter-culture of the postwar era, let's first briefly highlight mainstream culture. This will provide us with a basic conception of what the postwar era was like, and what counter-culture movements were opposed to.

Generally, the culture of the late 1940s and 1950s was socially conservative. With men returning home from World War II, traditional gender roles became firmly entrenched and clearly defined. Many women stayed at home to raise children and tend to domestic tasks, like cooking and cleaning.

The 1950s was a prosperous decade, and conformity ran high. Most Americans wore similar clothing, had similar haircuts, engaged in similar activities and generally thought along the same lines. This was the era of Leave it to Beaver. Anti-communism was widespread. Anything that ran contrary to the accepted norms was met with suspicion.

The Beat Generation and the 'Beatniks'

Now let's look at postwar counter-culture. While conservatism and conformity characterized the 1950s, there were, of course, exceptions. Rejecting the social norms of the day, a group of bohemian intellectuals and writers, known collectively as the Beat Generation, emerged during the 1950s. The Beat Generation promoted sexual liberation (including feminism and acceptance of homosexuality), mysticism, drug use, environmental awareness and other themes deemed 'radical' by mainstream society.

Writer Jack Kerouac was one of the leading figures of the Beat Generation. His 1957 book On the Road chronicles his travels across America, and is a sort of guide to 1950s counter-culture. The book remains a modern classic. Other important figures included Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. The 'beat' movement was centered in Greenwich Village, New York, but spread to other urban areas throughout the United States.

So, where did the term 'beat' come from? What's that all about? Jack Kerouac first introduced the term 'Beat Generation' in 1948. Originally, 'beat' meant 'beaten down' or 'weary,' but Kerouac applied musical connotations to the word, shaping it from something negative to something positive. Thus, in time, the term came to be associated with 'being on beat,' 'upbeat' and so forth.

The Beat Generation inspired beatniks, followers of the 'beat' lifestyle. Beatniks were 1950s hipsters who rejected traditional conventions. They often opposed capitalism, religion and many other mainstays of conformity. Stereotypically, beatniks wore dark clothing, turtleneck sweaters, sometimes a beret and sandals. Male beatniks often sported beards. Jazz music and poetry were integral parts of the beatnik lifestyle. Many beatniks played bongo drums. Beatniks adopted unique slang words, with 'hip' being one of the most common.

In many respects, the beatniks can be thought of as the precursors to the hippies of the 1960s. It is important to understand that the 'beat' movement was incredibly amorphous. Some beatniks were apathetic toward politics, while others were communists and others still libertarians. Some were Buddhist, while others were agnostic. Generally, the 'beat' movement was leftist, though again, we must remember it was ill-defined and very diverse.

Other Counter-Culture Groups

The 1950s were characterized by intense anti-communism. Between 1947-1953, the Red Scare gripped America. The 'Red Scare,' also called 'McCarthyism' after Republican senator Joseph McCarthy, was a period of heightened fear over the spread of communism. Therefore, anyone who did not fit the democratic-capitalist mold came under intense suspicion and even persecution. Legislation written in the late 1940s and 1950s was designed to purge communists from government and private business. Communists frequently lost their jobs, and in some cases, were jailed.

Homosexuals were also discriminated against throughout the postwar era. The traditional gender roles of the 1950s cast homosexuals as virtual second-class citizens. Homosexuality was considered subversive to a well-ordered society and was thought by many to be a form of mental illness.

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