Voices Against Conformity

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Voices Against Conformity

Edward Hopper's Cape Cod Morning (1950) is typical of his lonely, New England scenes depicting a solitary figure. The somber tone of his paintings starkly contrasts with the typical 1950s representations of saccharine, happy-go-lucky American life.

Many in the 1950s strove for the comfort and conformity depicted on such TV shows as Father Knows Best and Leave It to Beaver.

But despite the emerging affluence of the new American middle class, there was a poverty, racism, and alienation in America that was rarely depicted on TV.

Minorities seemed to be shut out from the emerging American Dream.

Poverty rates for African Americans were typically double those of their white counterparts. Segregation in the schools, the lack of a political voice, and longstanding racial prejudices stifled the economic advancement of many African Americans. In 1952, Ralph Ellison penned INVISIBLE MAN, which pinpointed American indifference to the plight of African Americans. "I am an invisible man," he wrote. "I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me ..."

While writing parts of Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

lived at Gordon Parks's home. Parks, a photographer,

made a series of prints that were his interpretation of

events in Ellison's novel. This one is entitled Man Peeking

from Manhole, Harlem (1949).

Latino Americans languished in urban American barrios, and the Eisenhower Administration responded with a program — derisively named Operation Wetback — designed to deport millions of Mexican Americans.

Reservation poverty increased with the Eisenhower policy of "TERMINATION," designed to end federal support for tribes. Incentives such as relocation assistance and job placement were offered to Native Americans who were willing to venture off the reservations and into the cities. Unfortunately, the government excelled at relocation but struggled with job placement, leading to the creation of Native American ghettos in many western cities.

Ethnic minorities — Jews, Italians, Asians, and many groups — all struggled to find their place in the American quilt.

The Beat Generation

In the artistic world, dozens of beat writers reviled middle-class materialism, racism, and uniformity. Other intellectuals were able to detach themselves enough from the American mainstream to review it critically.

The writers of the BEAT GENERATION refused to submit to the conformity of the 1950s. GREENWICH VILLAGE in New York City was the center of the beat universe. Epitomized by such Columbia University students such JACK KEROUAC and ALLEN GINSBERG, the beats lived a bohemian lifestyle.

While mainstream America seemed to ignore African American culture, the beats celebrated it by frequenting jazz clubs and romanticizing their poverty. The use of alcohol and drugs foreshadowed the counterculture of the following decade. Believing that American society was unspeakably repressed, the beats experimented with new sexual lifestyles.

In ON THE ROAD, Kerouac's hero travels around the nation, delving into America's fast-living underside. In "HOWL," Allen Ginsberg assails materialism and conformity and calls for the unleashing of basic human needs and desires.

As the media helped create a single notion of an idyllic American lifestyle, a vocal minority of social critics registered their dissenting voices. The notion of the white-collar, executive-track, male employee was condemned in fiction in SLOAN WILSON's THE MAN IN THE GRAY FLANNEL SUIT and in commentary in WILLIAM WHYTE's THE ORGANIZATION MAN.

In 1957, Kerouac published On the Road, the

definitive Beat Generation novel. The beats were

a subculture of young people dissatisfied with the

blandness of American culture and its shallow,

rampant consumerism.

The booming postwar defense industry came under fire in C. WRIGHT MILLS' THE POWER ELITE. Mills feared that an alliance between military leaders and munitions manufacturers held an unhealthy proportion of power that could ultimately endanger American democracy — a sentiment echoed in PRESIDENT EISENHOWER'S FAREWELL ADDRESS.

And teen alienation and the neurosis of coming-of-age in postwar America was examined in J.D. SALINGER's THE CATCHER IN THE RYE.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They're nice and all — I'm not saying that — but they're also touchy as hell.

– Holden Caulfield, from The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)

Painting against the Tide

American painters also took shots at conformity. EDWARD HOPPER who had made a name for himself in earlier decades, combated the blissful images of television by showing an America full of loneliness and alienation.

In New York City, painters broke with the conventions of Western art to create abstract expressionism, widely regarded as the most significant artistic movement ever to come out of America. Abstract expressionists, such as WILLEM DE KOONING,HANS HOFFMANMARK ROTHKO, and Jackson Pollock, sought to express their subconscious and their dissatisfaction with postwar life through unique and innovative paintings. The physical act of painting was almost as important as the work itself. JACKSON POLLOCK gained fame through "ACTION PAINTING" — pouring, dripping, and spattering the paint onto the canvas. Rothko covered his canvas with large rectangles, which he believed conveyed "basic human emotions."

Jackson Pollock's 1950 painting Lavender Mist typifies

"Action painting," in which he fixed his canvas to the

floor, then dripped paint all over it. Pollock's unorthodox

methods were heavily criticized (he was labeled "Jack

the Dripper"), but his novel painting style proved that

American artists were on par with their European counterparts.

Big Screen Rebels

While the 1950s silver screen lit up mostly with the typical Hollywood fare of Westerns and romances, a handful of films shocked audiences by uncovering the dark side of America's youth. MARLON BRANDO played the leather-clad leader of a motorcycle gang that ransacks a small town. In 1953's THE WILD ONE. The film terrified adults but fascinated kids, who emulated Brando's style. 1955 saw the release of BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, a film about juvenile delinquency in an urban high school. It was the first major release to use a rock-and-roll soundtrack and was banned in many areas both for its violent take on high school life and its use of multiracial cast of lead actors.

Perhaps the most controversial and influential of these films is 1955's REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. Another film about teenage delinquency (the main characters meet at the police station), Rebel is not set amid urban decay, but rather in an affluent suburb. "And they both come from 'good' families!" the film's tagline screamed. Ironically, the film made it clear that the failure of those very families was to blame for the main characters' troubles. Juvenile delinquency was no longer a problem for the lower classes; it was lurking in the supposedly perfect suburbs. Once again parents were outraged, but the message could no longer be ignored. The film earned three Academy Award nominations and propelled JAMES DEAN to posthumous but eternal stardom.

"Rebel without a Cause," a story of anguished middle-class

juvenile delinquents, was an instant sensation when released

in 1955. The film was particularly scandalous because the

main characters "came from good families." James Dean

played the main character, Jim Stark.

Sex Education

Puritanical sexual mores were challenged by ALFRED KINSEY's successive reports SEXUAL BEHAVIOR IN THE HUMAN MALE and SEXUAL BEHAVIOR IN THE HUMAN FEMALE. Kinsey revealed a much greater prevalence of premarital sex, extramarital affairs, and homosexuality than mainstream public discourse would have suggested. Americans were somehow surprised to read that, according to Kinsey, women actually enjoyed sexual experiences as much as men.

Despite the clear presence of poverty, alternative literature, and social criticism, Americans on the whole turned away and enjoyed happy days during the 1950s. But happy days values were soon about to make way for the 1960s.

"You say you want a revolution?"

Copyright ©2008-2014 ushistory.org, owned by the Independence Hall Association in Philadelphia, founded 1942.

    The Life of a 1950s Teenager 
Richard Powers 

World War II had ended but the world felt far from safe, between the new war in Korea, frightening talk of the Communist menace, and the threat of nuclear war.  If there was a national priority in America in the 1950s, it was to create a safe, secure, calm and orderly community in which millions of post-war Americans could start a family.

First phase: marginalization. Sandwiched in between the generations of new postwar families and their boom of babies was a generation of teenagers.  Teens were marginalized by the adults, who didn't want to be bothered with the very different values of teenagers.  There were a few television shows aimed at young children, nothing for teenagers, and nothing on the radio speaking to teen life.  Teenagers felt left out, ignored, disenfranchised.

Then the teens started to hear music about their world — songs about high school sweethearts, wild parties and fast cars, sung by other teens.  They were hungry for some recognition of their generation, some validation, and when it came, they embraced it.  Momentum started to build as this generation developed their own image and style, combined with the purchasing power of an increasingly influential demographic.  The word "teen-ager" was newly coined at this time.

Second phase: condemnation. With the increased teen presence came disapproval, as marginalization and indifference turned into active condemnation of teenagers by parents and local authorities.  Teen dances were shut down, rock'n'roll records were banned, and students were expelled for a multitude of rule infractions.

There have always been inter-family conflicts between parents and their adolescent children, but this cultural division was larger.  A significant proportion of the adult generation disapproved of the values and lifestyle of the teens, and were doing something about it, including setting new rules, restrictions and prohibitions.

● Boy's hair touching the ears wasn't allowed, punishable by expulsion from school.
● Most girls weren't allowed to wear pants, and boys weren't allowed to wear blue jeans.  Even Stanford University prohibited the wearing of jeans in public during the 1950s.
● The new slang - hipster talk - bothered most adults.  It was part African American, part beatnik and part street gang... an offensive combination in the eyes of the status quo.
● There was alarm about teens dating and "heavy petting."  Any talk about sex was taboo and could be punishable.
● Many parents were worried about their daughters adoring black rock musicians, fearing the possibility of racial commingling.
● Hot rods were considered dangerous.  All it took was a few fatal accidents and the other 99% of the custom cars and hot rods were considered a menace to public safety.
● Dancing to rock'n'roll music was often banned, with school and teen dances shut down.

John McKeon recalled, 

"What I remember most about the 50s were rules.  Rules, rules, rules... for everything.  Rules about clothes — which clothes you could wear when.  Rules about church.  Rules about streets.  Rules about play.
"The dance rules were different.  Dance with girls and hold this hand, but then... you could do whatever you wanted to do!  Dance looked like freedom.  The only freedom this kid knew."

The older generations were especially worried about "juvenile delinquency."  In the 1950s, this didn't mean dealing in street drugs or drive-by shootings, but rather chewing gum in class, souping up a hot rod and talking back to parents.

Rock'n'roll music was attacked on all fronts, with records banned and smashed.  Radio DJs were ordered not to play certain songs; rock singers (especially Elvis) were condemned; and the career of rock promoter Alan Freed, the man who named the music rock'n'roll, was destroyed by a government investigation.

To quote Michael Ventura, who was there:

For one thing, for us white kids, the real '50s was only the latter half of the decade, because we didn't have rock'n'roll until well into 1955, and in terms of popular culture the decade would hardly be worth mentioning without rock'n'roll.  For another, the feel of the time has not only been forgotten but also erased.  And there's no way to grasp the subversive force of this now-innocent-sounding music unless you can feel a little of what it meant to be a kid hearing it as it was played for the first time.

It was music that was made for teenagers and scared the hell out of adults; it was taboo-shattering music about–gasp–sex and racial commingling.  That's why records were burned, censorship laws were passed, and some lives were ruined.  Because this was the Devil's music, and it was threatening the status quo. 

But you couldn't stop anything this real.  It hit you where you lived.  It belonged to the kids and only the kids.  It set them apart.  It gave them something to believe in.  Rock'n' roll was their joy.  It was their freedom.  It is still so today.

US History- Vinson Name_______________________ Block _____

Conformity and Rebellion- Postwar Culture and the American Identity
Read the articles “The Life of a 1950s Teenager” and “Voices Against Conformity” (including the captions to the pictures) and then complete the questions below:

  • Vocabulary terms to define (use your phone or a dictionary to look these up):

marginalized __________________________________________________________________
disenfranchised ________________________________________________________________
demographic __________________________________________________________________
condemnation _________________________________________________________________
saccharine ____________________________________________________________________
reviled _______________________________________________________________________
bohemian ____________________________________________________________________
affluent/affluence _____________________________________________________________
posthumous __________________________________________________________________
puritanical ____________________________________________________________________

  • Brainstorming:

  1. Write down a list of adjectives that describe the culture of the 1950s. Come up with as many as you can using the articles you just read and/or a thesaurus.

  1. Based on what you’ve learned so far about the 1950s (and what you saw in the video), would you say that it was a boring time to be young, or an exciting time, compared to now? Explain your answer using examples:

  • Comprehension questions:

  1. Why did many minority groups feel “disenfranchised” and disconnected from the so-called American Dream in the 1950s?

  1. How was the “bohemian” lifestyle of the beat generation a response to, or rebellion against the materialism and conformity of the 50s?

  1. Why did many teens become so rebellious in the 1950s? Think back to when you read Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye; how was Holden typical of teenagers in the 1950s? Are some teens still like him today? Why or why not?

  1. Movies like Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause portrayed some teens as delinquents coming from affluent backgrounds. Why would these kids rebel? Do you know any kids from wealthy families that seem to be determined to rebel even though their lives are relatively easy? Explain:

  1. Prior to the 1950s, sex education wasn’t a regular part of teens’ education. Do you think Alfred Kinsey’s work (and the fact that it was widely read and discussed) contributed to what many parents probably considered “sexual deviance” among teens? Why or why not?

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