HONR 269J The Beat Begins: American Culture in the 1950s
Thursday, 6:00-8:30 p.m.
Drs. Michael Hall and Peter Losin, Lecturers in University Honors; Program Officers, National Endowment for the Humanities

Often characterized as dull and conformist, the 1950's in America was a period of enormous growth, energy, and variety. Many cultural and political movements that would explode on the American scene in the 1960's were already gathering momentum during the 50's. 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 GI’s 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, 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. At the same time, rock ‘n’ roll musicians like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and Elvis Presley were catching on among younger audiences. The fifties also saw the emergence of American cultural icons like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe in film, Bob Dylan in folk music, Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason on television, Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine, and Ray Kroc’s McDonalds hamburger restaurants, just to touch on some of the most obvious.

This course explores many of these aspects of the fifties. We 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 1950's are still with us–between 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. And 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 undiminished relevance now, fifty years later.

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

Partial Reading List:
David Halberstam, The Fifties; Allen Ginsberg, Howl
Jack Kerouac, On the Road; Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
Music by Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, and others
Paintings by Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, and others
Selected episodes from television programs
Rebel Without a Cause, Nicholas Ray, director
The Seven Year Itch, Billy Wilder, director

CORE–Humanities [HO]

        University Honors Program           Anne Arundel Hall           University of Maryland           College Park, Maryland