American Literature in the 1960's Analysis


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

Although it is inaccurate to describe coherent groups and movements in the 1960’s poetry scene in the United States, certain strains and voices did attempt to take the poem in new directions through explicitly experimental forms. The appearances of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems (1956) and Robert Lowell’s Life Studies and For the Union Dead (1959) marked watersheds in poetic form and subject. Ginsberg’s Beat vision made raw human experience the central spiritual focus of his work and celebrated the physical, sexual, hallucinogenic, and neurotic in all its seediness and glory. Similarly, Lowell turned inward, mixing loose cultural criticism with an analysis of domestic life, marking a new subject territory for American poetry that was distinctly personal. This confessional strain was also present in Anne Sexton’s To Bedlam and Part Way Back (1960) and All My Pretty Ones (1962) and Sylvia Plath’s Ariel (1966), which opened up the condition of the white, middle-class woman to the sharp eyes of the poet. By exploring themes such as madness, alcoholism, and suicide, these confessional poets challenged the silence surrounding American private life. Ginsberg’s Kaddish and Other Poems (1961) was also highly influential in the emergence of the San Francisco poetry scene, which attempted to merge a new emotional realism with the explicitly political, a populist move to get poetry back on the streets. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Starting from San Francisco (1961) and Her (1961) brought together anarchist and leftist strains in a blistering critique of American life. Similarly, James Scherril explored radical pacifism in Stalingrad Elegies (1964) and Violence and Glory (1969) and openly examined the crushing effects of militarized life brought about by the escalation of the Vietnam War. However, many in the San Francisco school initiated a shift in poetic and spiritual consciousness and turned to Zen Buddhism as a truly different form of perception. Gary Snyder sought to develop a new mythology for the American spirit in Myths and Texts (1960) and A Range of Poems (1967) while openly advocating liberation from the stultifying restraints of Western logical thought in The Back Country (1968) and Earth House...

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Signs of the Times

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

The use of the personal in social critique was also present in the writing of the New Journalism, which cut across traditional disciplines and genres, compounding poetry, prose, and biography with cultural and political analysis. Here, the writer was an engaged individual, thinking and participating in the world, having a ready ego influence. Tom Wolfe’s The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (1965), The Pump House Gang (1968), and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) took personal experience as a benchmark of the real and placed the writer as an active consciousness. Although Joan Didion also inaugurated her own tremendous style in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), perhaps the most resounding intelligence behind the New Journalism was Norman Mailer. Mailer was able to brilliantly synthesize political critique with intellectual acumen to produce landmark works such as An American Dream (1965), which explored the American love affair with power politics Kennedy-style. Similarly, Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967) laid out the underlying psychological forces for genocidal war in a complex narrative of male bonding and sexual experience. Mailer’s best work, Armies of the Night (1968), merged fiction and history and placed Mailer as both commentator and fictional character in the Pentagon protest of the same year. The intellectual writing of the period criticized existing social relations and...

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

Undoubtedly, the 1960’s opened with excitement and expectation about the possibilities facing American culture. The inauguration of Kennedy and his promise of a New Frontier gave a radically youthful cast to the political scene and brought an upsurge of optimism and faith in the mission of the United States. This seeming break with the political conservatism of the 1950’s was backed by strident rhetorical pledges toward social and racial equality. As a result, the literary imagination was galvanized into a renewed belief in the credo of justice for all and the possibilities of living and participating in a truly liberated and democratic society. This utopian strain cast itself as a spiritual and moral rebirth on both the national and personal levels. The impact of Eastern religions and philosophy offered a new transcendental ideal that freed the individual from the material world to accomplish human perfection. The achievement of inner peace through outer contemplation became the bedrock of a new consciousness that was reflected at the personal and intellectual level. The belief in the liberation of consciousness was vital in the reemergence of a secular humanism, and its melding with a democratic political impulse set the mood for the 1960’s. As a result, the world was seen to be both malleable and alive, fully open to the possibilities of active change. This blending of social justice and the insistence on personal authenticity was used to critique the shackles of tradition, class, race, and gender. However, in many ways, this desire for liberation was a very familiar American trait, one that was recast into the literary experimentation of this period. It is clear that much of the literature was obsessed with an abiding dream that an authentic, unpatterned, and unconditioned life was possible. In...

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Additional Information

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

For a useful study specifically focused on the literature of the 1960’s, see The American 1960’s (1980), by Jerome Klinkowitz. Morris Dickstein provides a broader and more personal approach in Gates of Eden: American Culture (1977). General studies on American literature abound, but some of the best are American Writing Since 1945: A Critical Survey (1983), by Robert F. Kiernan, and Ihab Hassan’s Contemporary American Literature, 1945-72 (1973). Tony Tanner’s City of Words (1971) and Malcolm Bradbury and Richard Ruland’s From Puritanism to Postmodernism: A History of American Literature (1991) provide detailed studies of individual authors.