It's comforting to know that not everyone looked at the 1950's and said, "What a great decade!" We have Congress, lead by Senator Joseph McCarthy, seeing Commies behind every rock and protecting American freedom by forcing people to sign "loyalty oaths." We have society clamping down again, after it loosened up a bit to accomodate, well, war. We have African-Americans agitating for the same freedoms at home that they enjoyed in the rest of the world (see "war" above). We have Elvis.
In short, a lot of the violence and social upheaval that boiled over in the 1960's happened because it was all bottled up in the pressure-cooker of the 1950's. I'm not going to repeat John Clellon Holmes here; I'm going to recommend that you read him for yourselves, by clicking here for the article he published in the New York Times in 1952, characterizing his tribe.
Some of that tribe included Allen Ginsberg, (in the hat at right), and Jack Kerouac, (the man on Ginsberg's right). The other members you may know are Gary Snyder, the poet, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, where a lot of poetry and literary rebellion happened.
The interesting thing about the Beats is that they were non-conformists who non-conformed in the same ways. Most of them were gay, or bisexual, they all drank to -- here comes an understatement -- excess, recreational pharmaceuticals were their chosen path to spiritual enlightenment, and they disavowed materialism, stealing only when they absolutely had to.
And they wrote. Dear whiz, how they wrote. Poetry, essays, novels -- it all flowed from them like a stream, and like a stream, there's quite a bit floating around in there that you wouldn't want to encounter on a full stomach. They also captured, in all of its unresolved anguish, the disillusionment of their generation. They didn't package it for mass consumption; they didn't WANT mass consumption. They wanted to be left alone to tell the truth as they saw it. This was not a popular activity in mid-century America.
Thing is, they were right about so much of it. Mainstream America wallowed in materialism, unthinking hawkishness, shallow intellectual life, and bland, watered-down spiritualilty. (Even as I write this, part of me thinks, "And this has changed, how?")
The telling of their own inconvenient truth produced no small measure of persecution. They were hauled into court on obscenity charges. They had many bad trips, and I don't mean to Atlantic City. They took involuntary vacations in mental institutions. They occasionally died young. Their influence, though, spread throughout a generation, and echoes down to our own. Not so many people have read Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl," but a LOT of people have listened to Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, U2, Rage Against the Machine, and dozens of other musicians who trace their roots to the Beats.
Like lots of people who live fast and die young, the Beats inspired hero-worship and beatification (that means elevation to sainthood). The truth is a lot more complicated, because like most of us, the good and bad in them are intertwined. Some of those who made it out, Ginsberg among them, felt later that they'd done unintentional harm to thousands of people in the 1960's who bought into the philosophical hedonism and didn't realize the addictions, poverty, and disenfranchisement they were also buying.