Political Rebellion of the 1950s

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Much of what we associate with the 1960's originated in the 50's, including new attitudes toward sex and the family and a new interest in ethnicity and diversity. Jewish and black writers, even a few openly gay writers, cut a path for the multicultural writers of the 80's and 90's. The margins of the culture were beginning to erode the conservative center. Elvis was influenced by black rhythm and blues, while writers like Norman Mailer and Jack Kerouac idealized black culture. Counterculture writers of the 50's were fascinated by jazz, which encouraged them to be more improvisational in their writing. Road novels like ''On the Road'' and ''Invisible Man'' not only created a loose-jointed plot but reflected a looser attitude toward morality and society. Even a book like J. D. Salinger's ''Catcher in the Rye,'' which wasn't considered so innovative at the time, in retrospect became part of the youth revolution that led to the 60's.

Was the literature of the 50's in some sense enhanced by the politically conservative climate?

Some people do their best work under the most adverse conditions. Norman Mailer recently talked about the 50's as a steady drip on the brain. That irritation can create the pearl in the oyster. Some of the best work of writers, intellectuals and filmmakers of the time was in reaction to social conformity and the limited range of political debate. Films like ''Rebel Without a Cause'' reacted against the home and family ethos of the 1950's. In that respect, the oppressive atmosphere of the 50's did not make writers happy, but it was good for their work.

In your view, postwar writers abandoned overtly political and ideological themes after World War II to turn inward. What caused that?

The war revealed terrible things about human nature. Remember, it ended with the opening of the death camps and the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Few writers dealt with those things directly because they couldn't really encompass...
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