Postwar America is often remembered as a time of domestic peace, prosperity, and repopulation following the horrors of the Second World War, a period of conformity and social conservatism. But the late 1940s and ‘50s also saw the beginnings of the counterculture – the Beat Generation and its contemporaries who in different ways pushed back against the mainstream with an eruption of art, music, and poetry, eventually spreading their style and message around the world. Although their work varied greatly, they had in common a determination to shun social conformity in favor of the power and significance of individual thought and feeling, often expressed through a stream of unedited lived experience without academic or societal constraints.

“American culture really does have many of the characteristics attributed to it by its critics. It’s about ideological manipulation. It’s about selling things. It’s about distraction – giving people conventional genre narratives that don’t take them out of their habitual realms of thought and feeling. But it’s not quite the closed enterprise that it’s sometimes made out to be. The counterculture demonstrated that culture is more of a battleground.”

The 1950s first brought this battleground into sharp focus, and many of its conflicts resonate today. Professor of English Gary Hentzi explores this resonance in his latest book, On the Avenue of the Mystery: The Postwar Counterculture in Novels and Film (Routledge, 2023).

“There’s a general acknowledgement that we’re living in the wake of the global counterculture, but it’s hardly something that’s been laid to rest and is more than just an academic concern. That’s one big issue. Another is how new narrative forms have been made possible by technology. Film and television have eclipsed literature as the dominant forms of storytelling in modern culture. This is such a big development that it’s often compartmentalized or just ignored.”

The co-editor of The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism, Hentzi brings his expertise to bear on 20th century literature, social criticism, and film, offering a fresh perspective on the period. His book is a study of eight major novels of the postwar era (1945-65) and the films they inspired in the following five decades. It’s a vibrant mix of cultural history and critique, that explores how the interpretation of the counterculture when the novels were written has transformed over the intervening years.

Hentzi’s readings are informed by his keen explorations of the movement’s major intellectual and aesthetic influences, which are viewed through the prism of mystery: “a sense of the unknown, an intimation of something hidden and as-yet unnoticed, a feeling that there may be more to the world than meets the eye.” It’s a theme that slowly, surprisingly – and fittingly – revealed itself to him as he worked.

“I didn’t really know what book I was going to write. But as I thought about it, I realized how pervasive the idea of mystery is. Suddenly it began turning up everywhere. It’s a feature of the period that is easily caricatured nowadays – people sitting around getting stoned and having visions – something that’s been outgrown and looks a little silly. But that’s a caricature of the idea that obscures the real thing. It has to do with the complexities of human relationships, with the way we experience our own lives and each other. And with technology too.”

This isn’t just a history. Hentzi highlights a specific period of cultural transformation that is, in many respects, still with us. The ways that mainstream culture can be countered have indeed changed, but the countercultural impulse isn’t something that simply disappears.

“There’s a whole set of themes dating from the period of the counterculture that are still with us, that are still ripe for use. Many areas were violently opened up and have since been assimilated. But my feeling is there’s always room for a capable artist to do something special.”

This is a book for cultural historians, literary critics, and artists alike, and perhaps a source of inspiration to those who – like the Beat generation and their fellow travelers – have grown weary of the artistic and social status quo. Content-creators, activists, and intellectuals take heed: if Hentzi’s research is to be believed, there’s still plenty of mystery and plenty more to be done.

Buy On the Avenue of the Mystery: The Postwar Counterculture in Novels and Film here.

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