The notion of the counterculture conjures up images from the late 1960s and early 1970s: hippies with love beads; flower children in rural communes or urban crash-pads practicing free love and voluntary poverty in a dreamy haze of pot smoke, acid trips, and psychedelic rock; and faded recollections of the musical Hair. Behind these dated stereotypes of misguided but sweet-tempered innocence lies a much broader phenomenon deeply rooted in American life.
The counterculture belonged to a strain of antinomianism that went back to the Protestant sources of American culture, including an aversion to hierarchy and tradition, a tendency to form small dissident sects, and a romantic faith in self-expression and personal morality as vehicles of salvation. In the hands of some of the greatest American writers of the nineteenth century, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, this romantic Protestantism was secularized into an energetic individualism, a return to nature, a faith in fraternity and equality, and a vehement but heterodox spiritual intensity. Utopian social experiments such as Brook Farm pursued the communal side of this quest for heaven on earth.
Other antecedents of the counterculture can be seen in the “beloved community” of the Greenwich Village radicals during World War I and the rebellious youth culture of the Jazz Age, as evoked by such expatriate writers as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. They saw American puritanism as small-minded hypocrisy, disdained the philistinism of small-town values, and mocked the work ethic of the Gilded Age as a cover for materialism, the worship of what William James called the “bitch goddess of success.” These writers reflected major shifts in American values, stimulated by advertising and the mass media, which helped create a new culture of leisure and consumption.
All these developments were heightened after World War II. Unparalleled economic growth, a steady migration to the suburbs, and some amazing advances in technology (beginning with the automobile) brought utopia within reach of the middle-class family. At the same time new art movements, appealing directly to the young, put their stress on energy, spontaneity, improvisation, and personal authenticity. This wave of innovation embraced the bebop virtuosity of jazz musicians including Charlie Parker; the abstract expressionism of such painters as Jackson Pollock; lyrical novels and poems by J. D. Salinger, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Allen Ginsberg; youth movies such as Blackboard Jungle and Rebel without a Cause; sensitive “method” acting by Marlon Brando and James Dean; and the erotically charged rock music of Chuck Berry, “Little Richard” Penniman, and Elvis Presley, which, like so much else in the counterculture, had crossed over from the black community. Meanwhile, liberal critics of conformity such as David Riesman and William H. Whyte gave way to Freudian radicals including Norman Mailer, Herbert Marcuse, Paul Goodman, and Norman O. Brown, who assailed cold-war America as politically and sexually repressive.
As the children of the postwar baby boom came of age, these bohemian adventures were taken up on a mass scale. In the climate of political revulsion that set in during the Vietnam War, especially on college campuses, sex, drugs, and rock music grew into messianic expressions of youthful alienation as well as strong generational bonds. With the introduction of the birth-control pill in 1962, sex became freer and far less inhibited. Marijuana (long a staple of the jazz world) and LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) turned into widely used drugs, promising not just kicks but nirvana or salvation. With Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones—followed by psychedelic groups such as the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead—rock music became the oral poetry of the younger generation.
By the late 1960s the counterculture spawned spectacular “be-ins” and “love-ins” in large public parks and brought together masses of longhaired, near-naked kids who ended up stoned in the rain and mud at the 1969 Woodstock Festival. Such spectacles fascinated and horrified middle-class Americans and stirred enormous media attention. Under the eyes of the camera, they turned into scenes of public theater directed against war, repression, hatred, acquisitiveness, machismo, ambition, and straightlaced morality. Members of the Youth International Party, the Yippies, led by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, threw money onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange to show their contempt for materialism. In the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco and the East Village of New York City, a core of anarchist activists, the Diggers, opened stores that simply gave things away. Other young people retreated to communes where conventional sex roles and economic roles broke down along with conventional ways of raising children.
Early commentators such as Theodore Roszak in The Making of a Counter Culture (1969) and Charles Reich in The Greening of America (1970) saw this as a momentous shift in human consciousness, an embrace of spirituality and sensuality in place of competitiveness, rationalism, and technology—in short, a break with the Faustian ambitions of Western man. But as the affluence of the 1960s gave way to the economic distress of the 1970s, such jaundiced observers as Daniel Bell, Christopher Lasch, and Tom Wolfe portrayed the counterculture as more narcissistic than spiritual. They saw its hedonism and promiscuity as a cover for inner emptiness and a spin-off of the consumption ethic of the postwar prosperity.
Within a few years there could be no question that American capitalism welcomed the counterculture as a way of marketing desire and stimulating sales. The middle class was changing, shaking off the old Protestant ethic of thrift and self-discipline. After the 1960s it became fashionable to be hip, stylish, a rebel, and a nonconformist. The Me Generation morphed into the Pepsi Generation. Like the economy, a media-saturated culture thrived on novelty. The critics of the counterculture understood very well how it could be embraced by the middle class, but its weaknesses were rooted in American individualism and anti-intellectualism, the cult of the primitive, not in any desire to turn a buck by marketing a new lifestyle.
Although they were media-savvy, the hippies and Yippies were genuine dissenters at the feast of American capitalism, adding a boisterous touch of comic irreverence to the protest culture of the age. They challenged authority not through argument but by mocking its pretensions and acting out their vision of the simple life. But this therapeutic faith in authenticity and self-fulfillment was in tune with some wider currents in American life. Their legacy can still be seen in the fluidity of today's sex roles and social styles, in the strength of the environmental movement, the growing attraction to Eastern religious practices, natural foods and fibers, and homeopathic medicine, and perhaps even in the fervent attachment to the virtual community of the Internet, which many have seen as the electronic version of the counterculture.
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