Essay The Use of Drugs by 1950s Artists

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A movement arose among the artists of 1950s America as a reaction to the time's prevailing conformity and affluence whose members attempted to extract all they could from life, often in a strikingly self-destructive way. Specifically, the Beat writers and jazz musicians of the era found escape from society in drugs and fast living. But what exactly led so many to this dangerous path? Why did they choose drugs and speed to implement their rebellion? A preliminary look at the contradictions that prevailed in 1950s American society may give some insight into these artists' world.

At the end of World War II, American culture experienced an overhaul that ushered in a period of complacency beneath which paranoia seethed. A generation that had
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Times were conducive to materialism and few seemed eager to change anything about their society. As Halberstam pointed out, it could be dangerous to alter a system that was "working so well" (xi).

Fear of change, as well as fear of a sudden atomic death, led to anxiety within the superficially satisfied culture. This nebulous fear of change, which needed to be directed at some enemy, found sanctuary in vehement anti-Communism (McNally 95), most extremely manifested in Senator McCarthy's witch hunts in the 1950s. Anxiety focused on Russia; as Allen Ginsberg facetiously wrote in "America," "The Russia wants to eat us alive" (43). The Cold War indirectly resulting from this anxiety brought with it the constant threat of annihilation. The fearsome power of nuclear weaponry had been demonstrated against Japan and could at any time be turned against the United States, whose citizens would then serve as sitting ducks for their own destruction. As tensions mounted, preparations of sorts were made for nuclear war. Schoolchildren crawled under their desks during air raids, probably knowing at some level that they could not hide from a bomb. A shelter was set up in rural West Virginia to which those deemed important to rebuilding the country (including my grandfather, a Defense Department engineer) would be shuttled in the

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