Life on the Edge: An Introduction to the Counterculture

20 Mar

This post contains part I of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.

Protesters at the 1968 Democratic National ConventionPhoto Via Barton Silverman/The New York Times

Protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention
Photo from Barton Silverman/The New York Times


Was the phenomenon in fact so extraordinary as contemporaries supposed? Was it as unprecedented, as profoundly subversive and world-changing as they thought? What was its true significance, its real nature, and what were the permanent effects of this strange and terrifying revolution? What exactly did it destroy, and what did it create?
–Alexis de Tocqueville, L’Ancien Regime, as quoted by Roger Kimball in “Virtue Gone Mad”

History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.
-Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas


In 1968, in the midst of one of the most tumultuous years in recent memory—one colored by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, massive public demonstrations on the streets of Paris, and violent riots in America and Western Europe—the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency submitted a classified report to President Johnson. Entitled “Restless Youth,” the report catalogued the activities of various counterculture movements across the globe. It warned:

A real cultural revolution working through a new dynamic educational system led by “critical universities” in ferment, a freed television, new experiments in other communications media, including literature and the theater, could lead to a rapid evolution in mass consciousness of the social situation, to the point where the gap between the “real” country and the “governmental” country becomes too wide, the lack of representivity of present structures and leaders too patent, new solutions and new leaders appear on the left, and the explosion, either peaceful or violent, follows. (United States 2)

This “real cultural revolution,” enacted through anti-authoritarian mass counterculture movements,[1] wasn’t confined to the United States. This was in fact a “world wide phenomenon” that was distressing established governments on both sides of the Iron Curtain (Suri 47). While 1968 marked a critical point in this cultural shift, factors leading up to such widespread civil unrest had been fomenting in the U.S. for years.

The CIA was correct in pointing to literature as a major catalyst for “mass consciousness.” The innovative style of “Beat” literature, which was categorically challenging to America’s status quo, led to an explosion in popular literature devoted to questioning societal norms. But the revolution—as envisioned by the counterculture and feared by the establishment—did not in fact take place. Historian Jeremi Suri notes that, despite the worldwide “internal unrest” of 1968, “not a single major government was overthrown by protesters” during that time (53). This was not because of governmental crackdowns on civil liberties or imprisoning of protesters; the counterculture itself played a critical role in its own dissolution. One can indeed look to the very literature that was instrumental in disseminating counterculture beliefs to find the flaws inherent in the movement’s social structure. By examining three iconic countercultural works from this time period—Jack Kerouac’s On The Road (1957), Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), and Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972)—I will illustrate how problematic aspects of the counterculture that originated in the Beat focus on authenticity and spontaneity were concentrated into an idealization of the outlaw figure, which consequently precipitated the movement’s dissipation.


[1] The term “counterculture” refers to a movement that is mostly social (though somewhat political) in nature whose aim is to question societal norms and existing authority structures. The term was popularized by Theodore Rosak in 1969 (Suri 46).


Next Post: Getting Out On The Road: A Brief Guide

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