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The Culture of the 1950s

2006-02-28 00:00

  During the 1950s, a sense of uniformity pervaded American society. Conformity was common, as young and old alike followed group norms rather than striking out on their own. Though men and women had been forced into new employment patterns during World War II, once the war was over, traditional roles were reaffirmed. Men expected to be the breadwinners; women, even when they worked, assumed their proper place was at home. Sociologist David Riesman observed the importance of peer-group expectations in his influential book, The Lonely Crowd. He called this new society "other-directed," and maintained that such societies lead to stability as well as conformity. Television contributed to the homogenizing trend by providing young and old with a shared experience reflecting accepted social patterns.

  But not all Americans conformed to such cultural norms. A number of writers, members of the so-called "beat generation," rebelled against conventional values. Stressing spontaneity and spirituality, they asserted intuition over reason, Eastern mysticism over Western institutionalized religion. The "beats" went out of their way to challenge the patterns of respectability and shock the rest of the culture.

  Their literary work displayed their sense of freedom. Jack Kerouac typed his best-selling novel On the Road on a 75-meter roll of paper. Lacking accepted punctuation and paragraph structure, the book glorified the possibilities of the free life. Poet Allen Ginsberg gained similar notoriety for his poem "Howl," a scathing critique of modern, mechanized civilization. When police charged that it was obscene and seized the published version, Ginsberg won national acclaim with a successful court challenge.

  Musicians and artists rebelled as well. Tennessee singer Elvis Presley popularized black music in the form of rock and roll, and shocked more staid Americans with his ducktail haircut and undulating hips. In addition, Elvis and other rock and roll singers demonstrated that there was a white audience for black music, thus testifying to the increasing integration of American culture. Painters like Jackson Pollock discarded easels and laid out gigantic canvases on the floor, then applied paint, sand and other materials in wild splashes of color. All of these artists and authors, whatever the medium, provided models for the wider and more deeply felt social revolution of the 1960s.

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