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Bringing it All Back Home II: Mapping Cultural Waves

13 Apr

This post contains part XII (the final chapter!) 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.

A protester tries out flower power at an anti-war protest at the Pentagon, 1967. Image from wikipedia.com

A protester harnesses flower power at an anti-war protest at the Pentagon, 1967.
Image from wikipedia.com


There are lessons to be learned from the ultimate demise of the counterculture, precipitated by its constant push to extremity and its marginalization of moderate voices in favor of calls for radical social change. By constantly pushing boundaries in search of IT, those seeking an authentic, meaningful way of life fell victim to the same material excess they had tried to avoid. Although Kimball characterizes sex, drugs, and rock & roll as the counterculture’s “chief weapons against the obligations of traditional culture,” they were merely a symptom of a middle-class rebellion against its own limited existence (Kimball 7). Even by pushing social boundaries, counterculturalists found that they could not avoid the obligations of traditional culture for very long. When striving for social or political change, it is important to remember the value of diverse (even conflicting) opinions and of freedom tempered by moderation. The counterculture’s failure to achieve many of its political goals illustrates the dangers of polarizing rhetoric and extremity.

The American political climate is often compared to a pendulum, swinging left to right over time. The period after WWII represented a monumental swing to the left—in social attitudes more than the political establishment. The reasons for political failure are obvious; Suri notes the irony of the fact that “the political moderation that supported stability and prosperity came under attack for its very moderation” (Suri 53). As the counterculture movement migrated from Beat coffee shops to massive street demonstrations, violence became an increasingly frequent component of demands for domestic social change and peace abroad (case in point: the Weather Underground). Suri notes that countercultural groups in the early 1970s “treated violence as a means for proving cultural authenticity in an international environment filled with lies” (60). And yet it seems that moderation won out in the end; “countercultural disorder created a perceived ‘emergency’” to the point where citizens were easily galvanized to react against this disorder by any political party promising “law and order” (62). The militarization of the counterculture is an example of what happens when the political pendulum reaches the limits of its leftward shift, precipitating a rightward swing. The attempt at authentic experience that began with speed, grass, and jazz in the 1950s snowballed into overindulgent drug use and violent protests during the 1960s. This contributed to a loss of faith in the movement in the eyes of mainstream America—who had taken much culturally from this movement, only to betray its values ultimately in favor of its own security. Continue reading

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Bringing it All Back Home I: Counterculture, Commodified

10 Apr

This post contains part XI 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.

Vintage Pepsi ad showing the absorption of countercultural symbols within the mainstream Image from kathykavan.com

Vintage Pepsi ad showing the absorption of countercultural symbols within the mainstream
Image from kathykavan.com


The counterculture of the fifties and sixties was not as revolutionary as it believed itself to be. Though some artists of the counterculture “may wish to imagine themselves exempt from the marketplace,” the success of their literary endeavors is actually the product of market forces (Adams 80). The counterculture had been at least partially commodified all along, operating easily within mainstream capitalist and patriarchal conventions, despite its antiauthoritarian stance. “The international counterculture was [sic] complicit in many of the elements of society it criticized,” claims Suri; despite its revolutionary rhetoric, the essential demands of the counterculture movement dating back to the Beats was “rapid and personal reform within existing social and political structures” (Suri 48, emphasis mine). Because these goals were in some sense achieved as the counterculture entered the mainstream, the counterculture itself “soon became a commodified touchstone of prosperity” (48). While the Beats were “dedicated to the rejection of popular culture,” their movement came to “further [the] development of popular culture” through their mainstream success and influence on sixties youths (Elteren 75, 85).

The success of the counterculture certainly depended on “the very capitalist structures that it often purported to despise,” but it is an oversimplification to blame the degradation of the movement on “corrupting corporations” who fed on “innocent artists” (Gair 2, 6). It is clear that despite the “free love” message of the hippie movement, everyone was in fact trying to sell something—their art, their music, their ideas, their interpretations of authenticity. “Christ, everybody and his brother has a manifesto,” Wolfe writes in Electric Kool-Aid, “Everybody has his own typewriters and mimeograph machines and they’re all cranking away like mad and fuming over each other’s mistranslations of the Message” (Wolfe 377). This image of mass production and consumption of ideas by the counterculture itself runs counter to the rejection of capitalism and consumerism advocated by both the Beats and hippies. While the counterculture was capitalizing on its growing media audience (signing hippie bands to major labels, granting TV interviews, organizing for-profit Acid Tests), major corporations were using psychedelic imagery, language, and music to sell products ranging from blue jeans to soda pop. To quote Herbert Marcuse, “The music of the soul is also the music of salesmanship” (Gair 5). Continue reading

Right on Paradise: The American Dream at the End of the Road

6 Apr

This post contains part X 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.

Thompson finally locates the American Dream.Image from cosmicsmudge.com

Thompson finally locates the American Dream.
Image from cosmicsmudge.com


In many respects, Gonzo journalism embodies and embraces the final step in the mainstream absorption (and subsequent commodification) of countercultural beliefs. Gonzo journalism depicts a grotesque web of countercultural immorality; nonetheless, we as readers enjoy vicarious participation in Thompson’s crime sprees, sprees which are actually financed by major media outlets, including Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone magazine.[18] While sitting poolside at a Beverly Hills hotel, Thompson receives a call from “some total stranger in New York, telling me to go to Las Vegas[,] expenses be damned” and then “another total stranger” hands him “$300 raw cash for no reason at all” (11). Thompson chalks this up to “Free Enterprise. The American Dream. […] Do it now: pure Gonzo journalism” (12).

Kerouac himself attempted to “test the American dream by trying to pin down its promise of unlimited freedom by following the example of Dean Moriarty” (Charters xxi). Kesey strove to “claim whatever he can rightly get by being man enough to take it” because there “is no limit to the American trip” (Wolfe 37, 112). But driving on the outskirts of Las Vegas in 1972, Thompson seems to have finally nailed down the exact location of the American Dream, what the counterculturalists had been looking for all along—“Big black building, right on Paradise: twenty-four-hour-a-day violence, drugs”—yes, unlimited freedom and consumption (Thompson 167). In a seven-page chapter towards the end of Fear and Loathing, Thompson’s narrative reporting breaks down and we are left with an editor’s note introducing us to a “verbatim” tape recording of Thompson and his attorney as they question some locals on the whereabouts of “the American Dream” (161, 165). Through this, they are led to a seedy joint called the “Old Psychiatrist’s Club” that had “burned down about three years ago” (168). This section encapsulates what Thompson believes to be the empty promise of the American Dream, one that is plagued by corruption and sinister greed. Continue reading

No Mercy: Gonzo Journalism on a Failed Revolution

4 Apr

This post contains part IX 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.

Ralph Steadman's take on Hunter ThompsonImage from Examiner.com

Ralph Steadman’s take on Thompson
Image from Examiner.com


Thompson’s writing exposes the inherent hypocrisies of the counterculture movement and helps explain why, only four years after the hope and rage of 1968, the movement had become a washed-up mockery of itself—and inadvertently paved the way for a conservative revolution. Suri points out that “the counterculture’s mainstream roots raised expectations for extensive political reform, but those expectations were ultimately a victim of the coercive leverage exerted by the figures who dominated the mainstream […] Rapid political change required something much more akin to social revolution than what the international counterculture could offer” (Suri 53). The leaders of the counterculture ended up as corrupt and manipulative as the mainstream political figures they railed against—instead of coercing followers into racist status-quos and unnecessary war, they instead lead them into extreme indulgence and a near-deadly narcissism.

Thompson expresses disappointment with the so-called leaders of the counterculture movement, especially the great Chief himself, Ken Kesey: “Tune in, freak out, get beaten. It’s all in Kesey’s Bible. . . . The Far Side of Reality” (Thompson 89). Throughout Fear and Loathing Thompson provides an echo to the Pranksters’ final refrain—“WE BLEW IT!”—and adds to the mix his own interpretation of the consequences. After the worldwide civil unrest of 1968, government leaders “rebuilt their authority around commitments to restore rationality, reasonableness, and domestic peace” (Suri 63). Needless to say, calls for “law and order” were immensely appealing to the “silent majority” of Nixon voters who lived in dread of the violent chaos that the countercultural movement had come to represent. Thompson writes from a place of disillusionment as he grapples with the fact that the movement he once believed in has been left flailing and leaderless while a conservative climate of fear and loathing had taken hold of America. Continue reading

The Undisguised Menace: Participation as Protest

2 Apr

This post contains part VIII 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.

The counterculture in its death throesImage from Fark.com

The counterculture in its death throes
Image from Fark.com


One individual who was profoundly influenced by the traumatic downfall of the hippie movement—crystallized by such tragic events as the 1968 Democratic National Convention and Kent State—was Hunter S. Thompson. He describes the general cultural malaise of the early 1970s in this way:

But what is sane? Especially here in “our own country”—in this doomstruck era of Nixon. We are all wired into a survival trip now. No more of the speed that fueled the Sixties. Uppers are going out of style. This was the fatal flaw in Tim Leary’s trip. He crashed around America selling “consciousness expansion” without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him too seriously. (Thompson 178).

Thompson’s writing gives voice to a segment of the counterculture that was left completely disillusioned and disaffected at the end of the sixties. He also represents a unique manifestation of the outlaw figure in popular culture; Hunter Thompson not only embraces the outlaw lifestyle of restlessness, lawlessness, and drugs, but he seems to have built his entire career on those very premises.

However, Thompson’s illegal exploits do not relegate him to the outskirts of society like Dean Moriarty or to exile like Ken Kesey. Thompson’s popular success as a countercultural, outlaw journalist comes to signify the final step in American society’s absorption of countercultural ideals. The countercultural drive for authenticity had irreversibly changed American culture, but the results were far stranger than anyone could have imagined. At the time of its serial publication in Rolling Stone magazine in 1971, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas simultaneously railed against mainstream culture and counterculture as it exposed the wretched consequences of both cultures’ excesses and hypocrisies. Continue reading

Getting Out On The Road: A Brief Guide

20 Mar

This post contains part II 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.

furthur1

Photo from SFgate.com


It will be worthwhile to give a brief overview of the books I will be analyzing: On the Road is a fictionalized narrative account of Jack Kerouac’s cross-country adventures with such notable literary figures as Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs in the years following WWII. The book features the frantic wanderings of Sal Paradise (Kerouac) and his newfound handsome outlaw friend Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) as they “dig” America in search of “kicks” and the ineffable concept of “IT,” recklessly roaming its newly-created highway system at top speed. On the Road, heralded as the ultimate expression of Beat literature, catapulted Kerouac and the Beat movement to instant popularity (Sax).[2]

Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters’ infamous 1964 drug-fueled, cross-country road trip in a psychedelic school bus named “Furthur” embodied Kerouac’s search for “IT” as well as the Beat energy and zest for life. With Neal Cassady at the wheel again and an epic meeting between Kesey and Kerouac in New York, many saw the Pranksters’ bus trip as a “passing of the torch” from the Beats to a new psychedelic generation (P. Perry 84).[3] Tom Wolfe gave voice to Kesey’s free-spirited philosophies as he cataloged the Pranksters and the formation of the acid culture throughout the sixties in his hugely popular book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Wolfe’s wildly subjective writing technique came to be known as New Journalism, a style further popularized by Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Hunter S. Thompson.

Thompson’s own unique version of New Journalism, called Gonzo journalism, was epitomized in his book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. Fear and Loathing depicts the travels of Thompson (as his alter ego Raoul Duke) and his “Samoan” attorney (pseudonym Dr. Gonzo)—based on Chicano activist Oscar Zeta Acosta—as they explore the city of Las Vegas in a three-day drug binge/crime spree. Thompson’s hyperbolic, savage tone and over-the-top criminal antics propelled him to counterculture stardom and gave voice to a growing sense of despair and disgust many Americans felt after the fractured idealism of the sixties. These three books represent a progression of popular literary styles and provide critical snapshots of the counterculture’s rise and fall in America. They also depict the idealization of the outlaw trope and illustrate how flaws inherent in the movement inadvertently fueled the corruption of the counterculture’s own ideals. Continue reading

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.

Continue reading