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The Use Of Drugs By 1950s Artists

4668 words - 19 pages

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 status quo, though there was a perpetual desire to possess a bit more. Like the wife in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, suburbanites always wanted a larger house, a larger car, and a better refrigerator, constantly aspiring to even greater material wealth. Times were conducive to materialism and few seemed eager to change anything about their society. As Halberstam pointed out, it could be dangerous to alter a system that was "working so well" (xi).

Fear of change, as well as fear of a sudden atomic death, led to anxiety within the superficially satisfied culture. This nebulous fear of change, which needed to be directed at some enemy, found sanctuary in vehement anti-Communism (McNally 95), most extremely manifested in Senator McCarthy's witch hunts in the 1950s. Anxiety focused on Russia; as Allen Ginsberg facetiously wrote in "America," "The Russia wants to eat us alive" (43). The Cold War indirectly resulting from this anxiety brought with it the constant threat of annihilation. The fearsome power of nuclear weaponry had been demonstrated against Japan and could at any time be turned against the United States, whose citizens would then serve as sitting ducks for their own destruction. As tensions mounted,...

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