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The Use of Drugs by 1950s Artists Essay

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A movement arose among the artists of 1950s America as a reaction to the time's prevailing conformity and affluence whose members attempted to extract all they could from life, often in a strikingly self-destructive way. Specifically, the Beat writers and jazz musicians of the era found escape from society in drugs and fast living. But what exactly led so many to this dangerous path? Why did they choose drugs and speed to implement their rebellion? A preliminary look at the contradictions that prevailed in 1950s American society may give some insight into these artists' world.

At the end of World War II, American culture experienced an overhaul that ushered in a period of complacency beneath which paranoia seethed. A generation that had lived through the privations of the Depression and the horrors of world war was now presented with large suburban homes, convenient and impressive appliances, and pre-packaged entertainment. Such wonders so soon after extended hard times were greeted enthusiastically and even treated with a sense of awe. They may have encouraged few distinctions among the middle class -- the houses in a suburb were generally as identical as hamburgers at McDonald's -- but they represented a wealth to which few had before enjoyed access. Life became automated, with dishwashers cleaning up after dinner and air conditioning easing mid-summer heat. The new conveniences left more time for families to absorb the new mass culture presented through television, records, and Spillane novels. Excitement over the new conveniences and entertainment led America to increasingly become an acquiring society. To my parents' generation, childhood in the 50s was a time when people were generally pleased with themselves and with the...


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...McNally, Dennis. Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America. New York: Random House, 1979.

O'Neil, Paul. "The Only Rebellion Around". Life 47 (November 30, 1959): 115-116, 119-120, 123-126, 129-130.

Parkinson, Thomas, ed. A Casebook on the Beat. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1961.

Peretti, Burton W. Jazz in American Culture. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1997.

Rigney, Francis J. and L. Douglas Smith. The Real Bohemia. New York: Basic Books, 1961.

Tytell, John. "The Beat Generation and the Continuing American Revolution". American Scholar 42 (1973): 308-317.

Van Den Haag, Ernest. "Conspicuous Consumption of Self". National Review VI (April 11, 1959): 656-658.

Wakefield, Dan. New York in the Fifties. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992.

Woideck, Carl. Charlie Parker: His Music and Life. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.


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