Lunatics Taking Over the Asylum: Cultural Chaos in 1960s America

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Lunatics Taking Over the Asylum: Cultural Chaos in 1960s America All You Need Is Hate If life in the 1960s was a collective journey to the Underworld, then it is terrifying to notice how many of us have failed to come back. (Marshall Berman, The Sixties) The 1960s formed one of the most culturally complex periods in America’s history, and the analysis of this era is just as problematic. During this time, American society experienced an outpouring of filmic, literary and musical texts that challenged traditional institutions such as the Christian church, the government and the family unit. It would be naïve to argue that this period witnessed the first or the last instance of subversive propaganda targeted at young people, for the many dissenting voices herein did not emerge by random chance. The formulation of a more politically aware youth culture in America and, to a lesser but still important extent, Great Britain, was a gradual process that had been taking hold for considerable time, not one that exploded into being when Bob Dylan or John Lennon began writing protest songs. However, while it remains a matter of some contention where exactly these anti-authoritarian sentiments originated, it is my opinion that this discontentment gained real momentum during the 1950s and 1960s. Firstly, the group of friends and writers most commonly known as the Beats evolved dramatically in focal points such as Greenwich Village and Columbia University, and subsequently spread their political and cultural views to a wider audience. The three Beat figureheads William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac each perceived an agenda within American society to clamp down on those who were in some way different from the accepted ‘norm’, and in response deliberately flirted with the un-American practices of Buddhism, drug use, homosexuality and the avant-garde. Ginsberg courted danger by lending a voice to the homosexual subculture that had been marginalised by repressive social traditions and cultural patterns within the United States. Homosexuality remained illegal in most parts of America until the 1960s, but Ginsberg refused to equate his Gay identity with criminality. He wrote about his homosexuality in almost every poem that he wrote, most specifically in ‘Many Loves’ (1956) and ‘Please Master’ (1968), his paeans to his errant lover Neal Cassady. Ginsberg’s poems are full of explicit sexual detail and scatological humour, but the inclusion of such details should not be interpreted as a childish attempt to incense the prudish and the square.

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