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How Hollywood Adopted the Beat Rebels

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By David Sterritt

Southern Illinois U Press

320 pp., $29.95

Post-World-War-II America was a less contented place than might have been predicted. Economic prosperity, military superiority, and domestic abundance did not assuage concerns about racial inequality, juvenile delinquency, and deadening suburban uniformity. As David Sterritt points out in his perceptive new book, "Mad to Be Saved: the Beats, the '50s, and Film," artistic culture became a terrain upon which the American condition was explored and contested.

For those who have prized Sterritt's film reviews in The Christian Science Monitor, "Mad to Be Saved" is a fine opportunity to profit at length from his insights.

The so-called Beat generation, a heterogeneous mix of young people, artists, writers, and intellectuals in the 1950s, shared a sense of disaffection from mainstream American values. In the face of national optimism, the Beats fostered a sense of the absurdity of life and the alienation of the individual from society.

Offering no systematic political blueprint, the Beats nonetheless maintained a vaguely subversive criticism of society that was eventually engaged in popular media like film. As Sterritt attentively describes, Hollywood often responded mockingly to Beat concepts like sexual freedom and anti-consumerism. Nevertheless, social observations phrased through Beat values made up a significant portion of American experimental and mainstream films in the '50s.


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