American Literature in the 1960's Summary


(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

Literary experimentation continued in the novel, which pushed subject and style to the limits of imagination. Although the novels of the period explored transformations of human consciousness, some took an inward journey to consider the very nature of perception and creative form. William S. Burroughs effectively began this transformation through a blend of surreal, hallucinatory, and frankly homosexual vignettes and experiences that wove together personal identity and political critique. In The Soft Machine (1961), The Ticket that Exploded (1962), and Nova Express (1964), Burroughs plotted the struggling consciousness of the writer against the oppressiveness of the almost universal authoritarian forces that existed in all organizational forms. Similarly, Ken Kesey likened American society to the madhouse in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) and pitted the lone antihero against the crushing power of the state, with tragic results. This almost paranoid style of writing focused on the unseen in American life and hinted at the dark forces at work behind the scenes. The characters in these novels occupy a wholly irrational world that is bent on destroying them although it never actually reveals its intent. These absurd and ironic events coalesce into a series of unseen conspiracies that appear in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot Forty-Nine (1966) and more famously, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961). The anxiety provoked by the catch-22 situation and the inability either to prove the conspiracy or to escape it highlighted the concern with powerlessness in American life. The inevitable moral uncertainty and distrust of absolutes this produced can also be seen in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) and Mother Night (1961). What Pynchon, Heller, and Vonnegut effectively illustrated was the growing distrust...

(The entire section is 771 words.)