Fag: ENG 2311 America in the 1950s and 1960s

Oppgavetype: Hjemmeoppgave

Tidspunkt: Høsten 2003



1. According to Allen Matusow, the counterculture was a projection of a “Dionysian impulse” that contributed (as the title of his book suggests) to the “unraveling of America”. Do a reading of Matusow’s “Rise and Fall of a Counterculture” in which you reach a conclusion as to character and influence of the counterculture. In the process explain what seems to you to be the most important characteristic(s) - sociological, psychological or political - of the counterculture.

Based on Matusow’s “Rise and Fall of a Counterculture” along with some other relevant texts, I will assess the character and influence of the American counterculture of the 1960s, also explaining its most important characteristic - be it sociological, psychological or political.


When analyzing a social phenomenon like the counterculture, as with literary analysis, one must make a comment upon its spatial and temporal settings. The notions that constituted the counterculture were not necessarily new ones. Matusow traces them back to the hipsters of the 1930s and the Beats and the rock’n’rollers of the 1950s. Nonetheless, its sheer size and the ways of expression found within the counterculture of the sixties, made it unique. Matusow claims that “America discovered hippies at the world’s first Human Be-In, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, January 14, 1967”1; he also says that “by 1967 Haight-Ashbury had attained a population large enough to merit, at last, the designation “counterculture””2. Roughly three years later, Matusow argues, the counterculture was fading due to a variety of factors. By connecting this decline to the infamous Altamont concert, Matusow encapsulates the heyday of the counterculture between two significant events, signifiers of the movement’s rise and fall. Geographically, he appears to see the counterculture as stemming from the San Francisco area, but “by the summer of 1967 ... imitation Haight-Ashburys bloomed throughout urban America”3, thus making the counterculture influential on a national basis.

            What constituted the counterculture? In order to explain the character of a social phenomenon like this, describing its development is highly relevant. Matusow seems to see the counterculture as being a development of the general concept of being in opposition to the established, to the mainstream. Being “disaffiliated”4, as it were. Essential in its development was the paradoxical and contradictory factor that the postwar economic boom provided material affluence: The people that made up the countercultural body were more than often privileged, middle-class white youth and “the counterculture ... in fact depended on affluence”5. Opposition to the Vietnam War was also an element fueling the counterculture6; along with The New Left, a header used to describe miscellaneous leftist organizations such as the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and the FSM (Free Speech Movement). But even though many politically radical youths adopted alternative lifestyles, far from all did. And vice versa. And this political element was by early 1967 a peripheral constituent of the counterculture7. There are additional points which will be discussed more thoroughly in the following paragraphs that both shaped and expressed the counterculutre.

            What the counterculture of the 1960s “countered” was the traditional values and conventional lifestyles of the American bourgeoisie. Matusow throughout his essay refers to the Dionysian aspects of the counterculture, “Dionysian” meaning something that is related to the sensual, spontaneous and emotional aspects of human nature (derived from the Greek god Dionysus, the god of all kinds of fertility8). Obviously, Matusow considers the counterculture to be a representation of sensibility rather than sense. Matusow argues that “the Dionysian impulse in the hippie counterculture was made up in equal measures of drugs, sex and music”9, which offers an adequate starting point in discussing what the text assumes to be the main elements of the counterculture: Non-conventional approaches towards lifestyle, sexuality, narcotics and music.

            Appearance became a major way of expressing solidarity with the counterculture. Both sexes grew their hair long and stayed away from cosmetics. The “natural look” became the ideal. Clothing also changed. Neck ties, sport jackets and nice, decent dresses were replaced with “clothes from the Salvation Army or military-surplus stores”10 and the like. Burning incense and candle lights, wearing peace symbols and indulging in Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism were also trademarks of the counterculture. Most offending of all to established society was probably their sexual mores. Paul Boyer claims that “they engaged in premarital sex more openly than their elders had”11, partly because the risks of pregnancy and venereal diseases diminished as new ground was broken on the field of birth prevention products, the most important invention being the oral contraceptive, popularly known as “the pill”. Couples living together out of wedlock became fashionable, almost the rule, among counterculture youth. Also, traditional understandings of relationships in general were challenged, as more and more people practised so-called “free love”, meaning basically sleeping with whomever, wherever, whenever. Matusow considers an unconventional approach towards sexuality a fundamental aspect of anti-establishment thinking right from the start in the 1930s. What distinguishes the sexuality of counterculture youth is both the ideological meaning that they gave their sexual expressions by linking the sexual repression of mainstream society to its way of thinking and the connection that would arise between LSD and sex. Timothy Leary, the un-parallelled LSD prophet, said that by using the drug “you are left with God and life - and life is sex” and claimed it to be “a powerful aphrodisiac, probably the most powerful sexual releaser known to man”12. This was an entirely new way of dealing with sexuality, and became very central to the counterculture lifestyle. The sexual codes of the counterculture would, to a greater or lesser extent, influence established society, thereby making premarital sex and one-night stands phenomena of little or no controversy in today’s society. The other trademarks of the counterculture mentioned in this paragraph would also leave their mark on society, and in time undermine traditional bourgeois society permanently.

            On a more general level as well, drugs would become one of the most distinct features of the counterculture. In fact, according to Matusow, “in the metamorphosis from beat to hippie, hallucinogenic drugs played an indispensable part”13. This seems to signify that Matusow sees the counterculture as an impossibility without the substance known as lysergic acid diethylamide. After trying it for the first time in 1961, Timothy Leary spread the “gospel” of LSD to millions, ensuring its presence in American society like never before. The goal of using drugs, Leary believed, was a richer experience of life and God14. Another way of viewing LSD was held by Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, who used it to “propel themselves out of their skulls”15. The liberal view concerning narcotics was something that would eventually pervade mainstream society as well, and remains one of the most influential aspects of the counterculture, considering the abundance of drug abuse in today’s society.

            The importance of discussing the music of the counterculture can hardly be overstated. According to Matusow, “rock and roll became a music that both expressed the sixties counterculture and shaped it”16. Boyer perhaps goes a step further in claiming that “above all, the counterculture defined itself through music”17. How can these statements be justified? Matusow points to two factors; first, that rock and roll had been protest music from the beginning18; second, because of its “demonstrable power to liberate the instincts”19. The first reason relates to his idea of the counterculture being in opposition to the establishment, the second to his idea of the counterculture as a “Dionysian impulse”. Matusow appears to find Bob Dylan the most influential and important performer in the first of these aspects, writing protest folk and folk-rock songs with social and political themes. In the second aspect, bands like The Beatles, The Byrds, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Grateful Dead, Moby Grape, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Doors and The Velvet Underground wrote songs expressing and glorifying liberal attitudes towards drugs and sexuality. Meanwhile, however, Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention ridiculed the whole counterculture phenomenon on their records. Colin Larkin, arguably the world’s foremost expert on popular music, claims that “the 60s will remain, probably for ever, the single most important decade for popular music”20. This shows us that the music of the counterculture, as with its dealings with sexuality and narcotics, was to have long-lasting influence.


Based on Matusow’s text, I claim that the counterculture’s most important characteristic is psychological rather than sociological or political. As we have seen, the political element of the counterculture became quite insignificant as the year 1967 unfolded. New Left representative Jerry Rubin tried in vain to promote politics at the Human Be-In, finding that a large portion of the counterculture was preoccupied with drugs and music rather than politics. The sociological characteristic, I think, was important to a much larger extent. The opposition to bourgeois convention never waned. The countercultural novelties within fields like sexuality, narcotics, music and general lifestyle were to a great extent influential in shaping the last thirty years of the century. Nonetheless, I think that the psychological facet of the counterculture is more fundamentally important than any of the other two. The Dionysian impulse Matusow refers to is a change in consciousness, in people’s minds. More than anything, the counterculture’s goal was ultimately self-indulgence. Sex, drugs, religion and rock’n’roll, it was all there to provide the ego satisfaction. Speaking of the Haight-Ashbury hippies, Matusow says that “their notion of tribal harmony was to let everyone “do their own thing””21, and he claims that “by the summer of 1967 ... doing one’s own thing became the national cliche”22. This tendency is described by Boyer as being “a narcissistic preoccupation with the self and its potential for gratification [that] would prove to be one of the sixties’ more enduring - and questionable - legacies”23. Clearly then, the psychological aspect of the counterculture was more important in exercising influence on American society than either its political or sociological facets.


1 Matusow, Allen J. 1984. “Rise and Fall of a Counterculture” in The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s. (p 333) Harper Collins Publishers, Inc.

2 Matusow (p 343)

3 Matusow (p 344)

4 Matusow (p 336)

5 Boyer, Paul S. 1999. Promises to Keep The United States Since World War II. (p 273) Houghton Mifflin Company.

6 Matusow (p 346)

7 Matusow (p 334), Boyer (p 272)

8 Henriken, Petter (editor). 1996. Hele Norges Leksikon bind 3. (p 346) Hjemmet.

9 Matusow (p 340)

10 Boyer (p 268)

11 Boyer (p 268)

12 Matusow (p 339)

13 Matusow (p 338)

14 Matusow (p 339)

15 Matusow (p 340)

16 Matusow (p 343)

17 Boyer (p 269)

18 Matusow (p 341)

19 Matusow (p 345)

20 Larkin, Colin (editor). 1998. The Encyclopedia of Popular Music 3rd edition vol I. (p 22). Muze.

21 Matusow (p 343)

22 Matusow (p 344)

23 Boyer (p 373)