HONR 269J The Beat Begins: America in the 1950s

Peter Losin

Course Description

Often characterized as dull and conformist, the 1950s in America was a decade of enormous growth, energy, and variety. Many cultural and political movements that would explode on the American scene in the 1960s were already gathering momentum during the 50s. With the end of World War II, American culture was primed for growth and change in nearly every area. New opportunities and upward mobility for returning GIs and their families led to the baby boom, the rapid development of suburbs, and an increased professionalization of the middle class. In politics there was the onset of the Cold War, the Korean conflict, the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and the McCarthy hearings. Social values were changing, as evidenced by Brown v. Board of Education, Rosa Parks, the emergence of Martin Luther King, Jr., and public fascination with the cause of civil rights in the South. In literature the Beats and those identified with them -- Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and others -- set the tone for a generation of young writers. In popular music Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and others were introducing a new kind of jazz. Rock 'n' roll musicians like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and Elvis Presley were catching on among younger audiences. Many popular cultural figures, artists, and intellectuals were embracing popular versions of Existentialism. The fifties also saw the emergence of American cultural icons like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe in film, Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly in rock 'n' roll, Bob Dylan in folk music, Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason in television, Hugh Hefner's Playboy magazine, and Ray Kroc's McDonald's hamburger restaurants, just to touch on some of the most obvious.

This course will explore many of these aspects of the fifties. We'll try to identify significant and enduring cultural shifts taking place beneath the deceptively calm surface in the years after World War II and prior to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Some of the most salient tensions and conflicts of the 1950s -- between the demands of security and respect for civil liberties; between pressure to conform to social, religious, and political roles and the need to find ways to express individuality; between increasing wealth and opportunity for some and a growing awareness of the ways in which these things are unavailable to others; between the promise of science and technology and the need for control and regulation for the common good -- are still with us. Figures like Joseph McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover, Lewis Strauss and Robert Oppenheimer, Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan, Betty Friedan and Alfred Kinsey continue to generate widespread interest and seem to have undiminshed relevance now, more than fifty years later.

There will be a common core of reading, viewing, and listening assignments. We read and discuss two books about the 1950s, and a number of works -- short stories, essays, poems, and a novel -- written during the period. Students will write essays on four films we watch during the semester. In addition to this common core, students will (in consultation with the instructor) prepare a substantial semester project on some aspect of the fifties that interests them. There will be a comprehensive final exam. Since this a seminar, attendance at all class meetings is required, as is active and informed participation.

For more details, consult the HONR 269J syllabus.

Course meets Thursday evening, 6:00 - 8:30 pm
Course satisfies the CORE - Humanities requirement

Books, Films, etc. for HONR 269J

James Baldwin, Going to Meet the Man (stories, 1965).
Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act (essays, 1964).
Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems (1956).
David Halberstam, The Fifties.
Jack Kerouac, On the Road (1957).
Arthur Miller, The Crucible (1953).
Dan Wakefield, New York in the Fifties.
Music by Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, and others.
Paintings by Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and others.
Selected episodes from 1950s television programs.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), directed by Robert Wise.
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), directed by Nunnally Johnson.
The Seven Year Itch (1955), directed by Billy Wilder.
Rebel without a Cause (1955), directed by Nicholas Ray.