Literary Representations of Countercultures Analysis

Influences, Roots, and Borrowings

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Jay Stevens writes in Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream (1987): “in many respects the hippies were second-generation Beats.” Although the counterculture generation was more colorful, more optimistic, and more political, it shared with the Beats a distaste for authority and conformity. Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, major Beat writers, became leading counterculture figures.

The counterculture also brought popularity to kindred spirits from the past. Ginsberg drew attention to English Romantic poets William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Even more popular was Hermann Hesse, a German novelist and poet whose antiwar sentiments, Eastern mysticism, and psychological probings appealed to the counterculture.

The fantasy books of J. R. R. Tolkien (The Hobbit, 1937, and The Lord of the Rings, 1954-1955) were favorites in the counterculture; in general, fantasy and science fiction appealed to the counterculture’s exuberant imagination. The counterculture was influenced by the Beats, the literature the Beats advocated, and by such writers as Tolkien; in turn, the counterculture influenced such fanciful works as The Butterfly Kid (1967) by Chester Anderson, and Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s The Illuminatus Trilogy (1974).


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The most innovative literature produced by the counterculture was passionately personal and experimental nonfiction. In the 1960’s, this nonfiction flourished in the underground newspapers, in rock-and-roll magazines such as Rolling Stone, and in satiric publications such as Paul Krassner’s The Realist. This nonfiction, in a bold stroke, dropped the mask of objectivity in journalism and used the personal voice and point of view of the journalist in describing events. Counterculture journals published manifestos, guerrilla journalism (ranging from political exposé to advice on finding free food), and personal narrative. The late 1960’s and early 1970’s saw the book equivalents of underground journalism: Revolution for the Hell of It (1968) and Steal This Book (1971) by Abbie Hoffman; James S. Kunen’s The Strawberry Statement: Notes of a College Revolutionary (1969); and Do It: Scenarios of the Revolution (1970) by Jerry Rubin. Important memoirs also chronicle the time, from Emmett Grogan’s Ringolevio: A Life Played for Keeps (1972) to Heavenly Breakfast (1979) by Samuel R. Delany. Personal and subjective narration mixed with factual reporting became known as new journalism. Classic examples may be found in the works of Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, and Hunter S. Thompson.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Major public figures of the counterculture produced little fiction; Ken Kesey’s popular One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest was published as a novel in 1962. Burroughs continued steady publication of his antiestablishment works. Three major writers who participated little in public events of the counterculture but who examine countercultural themes are Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan, and Thomas Pynchon. Vonnegut’s novels, especially Cat’s Cradle (1963) and Slaughterhouse-Five: Or, The Children’s Crusade, a Duty-Dance with Death (1969), offer satire, imagination, and hope in an absurd world. Brautigan’s poetry and prose use evocative and surreal imagery to critique everyday life. Pynchon, the best and most challenging writer of the counterculture, makes brilliant, encyclopedic observations about the society of his time in V. (1963), The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973). Pynchon’s Vineland (1990) is a bittersweet look at the graying members of the counterculture and their challenge to find hope in the years of the Reagan Administration.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Dickstein, Morris. Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties. New York: Basic Books, 1977.

Peck, Abe. Uncovering the Sixties: The Life and Times of the Underground Press. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985.

Sayres, Sohnya, et al., eds. The Sixties Without Apology. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Stevens, Jay. Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream. New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1987.

Whitmer, Peter O., with Bruce Van Wyngarden. Aquarius Revisited: Seven Who Created the Counterculture That Changed America. New York: Macmillan, 1987.