During the Fifties the United States was filled with confidence but at the same time insecurity. The United States emerged from WWII as a global superpower and a symbol for freedom. The United States saw its role in world affairs as the protector of free countries from communism. The fear of communism expansionism during the fifties was a major issue. Communism represented radical thinking and ideas, a shift away from conservatism thinking or a shift away from the center, to a shift towards the edge. During the Fifties the fear of communism spreading in America gave rise to movements such as McCarthyism and the House on un-American Activities (HUAC). These movements represented the feelings of Americans towards communism at the time, they represented fear and the way to contain their fears was to weed out the bad seeds. These movements created a shift towards the center again, towards conservatism. This trend towards the center or conservatism can be seen in all aspects of American life. Not only was conservatism evident in the Fifties, but also rebellion. The push to be conservative and persecute individualism was an immense undertaking that it created fear and out of that fear came rebellion.
In any controlled environment, such as the one the United States created for itself during the Fifties, there is bound to be some kind of tension or rebellion, rebellion against the pressure of being normal or conservative. There was a great deal of stress being placed on being ?just like everyone else?. The voice of the rebellion was usually the entertainers, artists, or writers. Many of these people expressed their feelings about current issues by disguising it in their stories, movies or, paintings. Many of these people challenged the politics of the mainstream or the center. However there were works done that supported the shift towards the center and conservatism. Three works that will be examined are Kurt Vonnegut?s, ?Player Piano?, the movie, ?Rebel Without a Cause?, and Jack Kerouac?s, ?On the Road?.
In Kurt Vonnegut?s novel, ?Player Piano?, many similarities can be seen between the post-war period in the novel and post WWII in America. In post WWII America there was an extreme shift towards conservatism and an extreme prejudice towards communism. In the post-war period in the novel there was also an extreme shift towards conservatism, but instead of an extreme prejudice towards communism there was an extreme prejudice towards sabotage. Sabotage and communism can be interchangeable because they both mean radical change or thinking and were ideas or acts that were against conformity and conservatism. Vonnegut used sabotage in place of communism to better describe the situation in his novel, but was actually using his novel to describe the current situation in America. During post WWII, communism was a lurking threat in the world and in America. Many feared that communism would expand its influences into America. This was the same fear that was depicted in Vonnegut?s novel, but instead of the fear of communism it was a fear of sabotage. In the novel Vonnegut used terms such as ?anti-sabotage laws? and saboteur. In America there was McCarthyism, HUAC, Executive order 9835, and communist. The worst thing anyone could be called during the fifties was a communist, or in Vonnegut?s novel, a saboteur because it meant that they were a rebel.
Another similarity would be the growing dependence on technology like the atom bomb and EPICAC. They both represent how we have become dependent on technology to fight our wars and do our thinking. The development of Levittowns was also described in the novel as M-17?s and how everyone lived in one. Everyone had the same house, had the same furniture, and had the same appliances. In essence everyone was the same, they just had different names. It was these kinds of trends that Vonnegut wrote about to warn the American population of what was happening around them.
Vonnegut noted these trends in American society in his novel, predicting what could happen if society continued on this path. America was developing a trend where individuals were no longer recognized; only the whole mattered. Everyone had to be part of the system, if you were not part of the system then you were against it. Just even the idea of radical change would brand you as a ?rebel?. Writing this kind of literature during the fifties criticizing the American government would have branded Vonnegut as a communist or a ?rebel?. This is another similarity that can be pointed out between post WWII America and ?Player Piano?.
The main character of ?Player Piano? is Paul Proteus. In the novel, we read that Paul is a confused character with little hope in society and can be influenced. Paul?s lack of faith in the system puts him in the middle of two extremes, the conservative side and the radical or rebellious side. Paul?s lack of reverence for the system puts him more closely to the edge or the rebellious side but then again Paul does not totally agree with the ideas of the rebellious side. It is because of this thinking that makes Paul look confused to both sides and makes him a ?rebel without a cause?. Paul does not believe in the conforming ways of the center or the system and he also does not totally believe in the radicals, the only thing that Paul knows is that he does not seem to fit in anywhere. In the end Paul finds himself part of the radical side, not by choice, criticizing the policies of society not as a radical but as an individual. This is significant because it points out how the society gave up its freedom to technology to feel safe, just like how Americans in the fifties gave up some of their freedom to feel safe from communism. Paul may have not known exactly how to put his feelings in exact words but he did know that he felt a slave to society and his act of rebellion at the end was just his expression of his feelings. Thus he was labeled a rebel just because he wanted back his freedom to choose.
The movie, ?Rebel Without a Cause?, is about three troubled teens who are at the edge being brought back to the center. The movie is representative of the American problem with troubled teens during the fifties. During the fifties great emphasis was placed on the family being conservative and normal. The normal conservative family usually consisted of a strong working father and a mother who stayed home and takes care of the children. This appearance of being normal and conservative had a great deal to do with what was going on in the country at the time. Nobody wanted to be labeled as different, if you labeled different you were viewed as un-American.
The troubles of the main character of the movie, Jim Stark, come from home. Jim blames his problems on his father in particular. Jim sees the American family as a strong father and obedient mother, but he does not see that in his family. Jim looks to his father for guidance but finds none from him and is frustrated. At the end Jim finally gets what he wants from his father, someone who is going to be strong. The movie is sending a message that family is very important in life. If the problems at home are not taken care of they can progressively get worse, just like in the case of Plato. The movie is definitely a shift towards conservatism and away from rebellion. The pressures to conform put a lot of stress on Jim?s parents to appear normal, but in the process confused them. Jim?s father was certainly not the typical father, very passive and was a pushover. Jim?s mother was dominating and a bully. That fear of not being normal caused a lot of turmoil in the family and may have caused Jim?s rebellious behavior.
Jim, just like Paul except their positions is reversed, is on the edge and wants to get back to the center. Jim tries to do the right things, the things that a man should do, but is unsure if the things he does are right. Jim is confused and the only thing he knows for sure is what he wants from his father, unlike Paul. There is a contrast in ideas between Paul and Jim and this contrast in ideas and thinking are consistent. Jim wants to be like every other kid with a normal family; he wants to in conformity. Paul wanted to be more of an individual; he did not want to follow conformity.
In Jack Kerouac?s novel, ?On the Road?, he gives the accounts of Sal Paradise and his experiences while traveling on the road. Sal travels cross-country to San Francisco to meet a college buddy, but on his way he stops by Denver to meet his crazy friend, Dean. Sal idolizes Dean for his cowboy style, ease with women, and his joy for living. The two of them go on some exciting trips across America. The reason why Sal wanted to go out on the road was because he found conventional life to much pressure and that life was not for him. Sal took time out from college to travel a path less worn.
The novel is completely on the edge, Kerouac writes about doing things that people would not even consider. Kerouac writes about following the individual?s desires, doing whatever one wants to do, living life unconventionally. Kerouac?s novel is a contrast to the movie and shares some common ideas with Vonnegut?s novel. It contrasts the movie in that it shows individuals living unconventionally, that not everyone is meant to live like that. If we compare Vonnegut?s novel to Kerouac?s we find that they both share the same ideas that people should be able to choose and live individually.
The novel may not have much political context, but it fits well into the notion of conservatism and radicalism. Comparing the main characters of all the examples discussed we find pressures of conformity pushing them into the directions they have gone. Through the pressures each of the characters led some sort of rebellion in one way or another. The pressures of conformity during the fifties was brought on by the idea that we had to defeat communism and not let communism defeat us, especially at home.