Bohemian resonance: the beat generation and urban countercultures in the United States during the late 1950s and early 1960s

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Starr, Clinton Robert

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In 1957, the obscenity controversy surrounding Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg and the instant success of On the Road by Jack Kerouac precipitated a mass-media sensation over the beat generation and its subculture of idiosyncratic writers and artists. As a result, urban districts in which avant-garde intellectuals congregated experienced a rapid influx of new residents and frequent visitors, many of whom did not identify as poets or painters but felt a strong affinity for the adversarial attitudes and ways of life that permeated bohemian enclaves. Focusing on the North Beach district of San Francisco and the Venice area of Los Angeles, this study examines how bohemian alternatives resonated in America during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Bohemian countercultures in Los Angeles and San Francisco challenged pervasive social norms and catalyzed both personal freedom and collective political action. California bohemians rejected consumerism, homophobia, restrictive gender roles and racial segregation, and they mobilized to defend their communities from repression by police and municipal governments. Chapter one argues that mass-media depictions of the beat generation simultaneously exaggerated and sanitized the oppositional potential of bohemians, yet also disseminated the adversarial culture of avant-garde intellectuals to a national audience. Chapter two examines how a broad array of people valorized the alternative milieu of urban bohemias. This chapter also explores how the owners of bars and coffeehouses sought simultaneously to exploit growing public interest in the beat generation and create environments in which poets, painters and musicians could share their work with diverse audiences. Chapter three argues that bohemian districts were countercultural spaces in which restrictive gender roles, homophobia and racial prejudice never disappeared but were challenged to an extent that was often far more difficult to sustain in other parts of the metropolitan landscape. Chapter four assesses the ways in which municipal governments and law enforcement officials repressed the countercultures of Los Angeles and San Francisco, and the strategies bohemians developed to fight such oppression and defend their access to public space.