From the European Romantics of the 18th century avant-garde to the pre-WWI Bohemians, the world’s been struck by many a powerful counter-cultural movement. The one that’s closest to our hearts, though, spanned the mid-twentieth century, and was rooted in the USA: from the post-War 1940s right though to the early days of the 1970s, America was bombarded with hippies, flower-power, drop-outs, squatters, pacifist campaigners and (not least) feminists, each of them battling against the status-quo and the staid, conservative middle-classes. And what helped to stir this revolutionary stew?
Why, books, of course! Writers were right there in the thick of it, scribbling literary rallying cries that we’re still hearing today. It’s hard to know where to start – Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? Burroughs’ Naked Lunch? – but here, anyway, is a small selection of our favourites.
Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
It’s trippy, it’s tragic, and It’s one of the finest, saddest, most savage indictments of war ever written. It’s full title is Slaughterhouse Five, or the Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, and it features a time-travelling soldier, Billy Pilgrim, who’s held prisoner in Dresden as the Allies bombed it during WWII. The best sci-fi satire you’ll ever read.
Franny and Zooey, J.D. Salinger (1961)
Maybe a little less famous than The Catcher in the Rye (another counter-cultural classic that railed against bourgeois phonies), this idiosyncratic two-part novel tells the story of the disenchanted Glass siblings – Franny, whose date with an intellectualizing jerk goes terribly, and her brother Zooey, who tries to cheer her up by passing on the wisdom of their elder brother, Seymour, who killed himself some years back. Salinger’s interest in eastern spiritualism and meditation – very popular at the time – comes through in this book, and the sibling relationship is obliquely touching. It received mixed reviews at the time but continues to have a huge cult following – well deservedly, we reckon.
The Group, Mary McCarthy (1963)
Sex and the City for the sixties (but much smarter), this novel was banned in some counties (Australia – we’re looking at you) when it first came out. Its frank depiction of the sexual lives and attitudes of a group of female friends post-university in the early twentieth century made its contemporary readers re-examine their lives as housewives and mothers. A hugely significant feminist text, this one was (and is) counter-cultural to the core.
Catch-22, Joseph Heller (1961)
Slaughterhouse Five might be the best sci-I satire you’ll read, but Heller’s modern classic is flat out the best satire ever (according to us, ahem). Join Yossarian, Nately, Major Major Major and Milo Minderbinder as they try to scam, dodge and hide their way through WWII without dying as the rules keep changing around them. Its non-chronological structure is trippy in the extreme, and the anti-war theme was hugely popular with the American youth who were protesting the American intervention in Vietnam.
A writer of erotic poetry, Isadora Zelda Wing, has an affair with another man while on holiday with her husband. Like The Group, this went down a storm with the revolutionary feminists, and Jong’s still-popular novel also managed to insert a few choice phrases into our sexual lexicon – the zipless f**k, anyone? Definitely one that ran contrary to the still rather stilted perceptions of female sexuality that the mainstream liked to promote, Fear of Flying was charting lonely waters.
The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness won the Hugo and the Nebula awards for best novel back in ’69, and lit critic Harold Bloom rates it higher than Tolkien. Counter-cultural? Amidst the misogyny that generally characterizes mid-twentieth century science-fiction, then, yes, definitely – Le Guin’s work back then ploughed a significant trail for writers to come. And besides, the book’s brilliant: it’s got exile and murder and interplanetary exploration, and there are no gender divisions – surely, something for everybody!
Probably the weirdest book of the lot, Trout Fishing helped establish Brautigan’s reputation for producing dreamy, peculiarly abstract texts that were yet immensely readable. It’s anecdotal and fragmentary and has a staggering legion of fans, two of whom allegedly named their baby ‘Trout Fishing In America’ – in the book, the title refers to everything from people to a hotel, and the whole thing is a send-up of mainstream US culture. Hint: if you liked this, you really have to read In Watermelon Sugar (1968), a novel set inside a commune who have a cabin called iDEATH. Brautigan – we salute you.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey (1962)
Unjustly overshadowed by the blunter film version (which we also like, don’t worry), Cuckoo’s Nest is a critique of psychiatric practices, behaviorist psychology and general blind rule-following. It stars the antagonistic anti-hero, McMurphy, archetypal evil nurse Ratched, and the massive and silent Chief, Bromden, who both narrates the book and is inspired by McMurphy’s bold nature. In researching the text, Kesey visited psychiatric institutions and took a bunch of psychoactive drugs, including LSD. The whole thing is about critiquing coercive authority and pursuing individual freedom, and if that’s not counter-cultural, then – we ask you – what is?
Post Office, Charles Bukowski (1971)
Starring alcoholic and gambling addict Henry Chinaski, who spends the book suffering through a horrible job as a mail carrier and another as a mail clerk (Bukowski likely wouldn’t get a job advertising Royal Mail), Post Office is a sort-of autobiography, with Chinaski as Bukowski’s misfortunate reprobate alter-ego. It does nothing to sell the virtues of a good old nine-to-five; it’s lurid and dirty and low-down; it’s everything a counter-cultural outpouring ought to be.
Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh (1993)
A sneaky latter-day addition (not to say there aren’t dozens of other fine contenders from back in the mid-century), Irvine Welsh’s debut is somewhere between a novel and a short story collection, featuring as memorable a cast of junkies and losers as we’ve seen outside a Hubert Selby Jr. book (Selby, of course, is another counter-cultural star). Trainspotting tells us to choose life, but the life it portrays is nasty, short and unhappy – and yet dazzlingly original in its use of dialect and grim Edinburgh settings. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll love the book, and here’s a word to the wise – try reading it aloud for maximum effect.
These are our favourites, but tell us: which counter-cultural books have blown your mind?