THE1950s – 1960s

When the II World War ended,  the United Nation Organization (UNO) was founded in 1945.It was an international peace-keeping organization that had to try to avoid war,to promote social and economic progress and defend human rights.The political scene became more international and important events involved large parts of the world.On the International Scene, after the 1945 Yalta Agreementthe world had been divided into two blocks, respectively on the influence of USA (The North Atlantic Pact Organization- NATO-1949) and of Soviet Union (The Warsaw Pact- 1955). The division of Berlin into two established the so-called Iron Curtain (physical and ideological division between the NATO countries and the USSR)and started the Cold War (bad relationships between the two superpowers). In the USA many people believed that Communism was a threat for the freedom of the individuals and for the capitalist economic system( McCarthyism).The relationships between the two superpowers deteriorated to a point never reached before, especially after the Suez Crisis(1956)    and the Russian invasion of Hungary(1956). The fear of a new conflict worried the world especially after the building of the Berlin Wall( 1961) and the Cuban Crises(1962). Another threat came from the Vietnam War(1960-1975).

After the war, Britain tried to recover and The Labour Government based its social reforms on the report of 1942 by the economist Sir William Beveridge.He wrote that the Government had to beat” five giants on the road of reconstruction: Poverty, Disease,Ignorance,Squalor and Idleness“.  In 1951  there was in Britain a General Election and the Labour Party, notwithstanding the Welfare State and the many social reforms, lost the election. The Conservative Party came to the power and continued the policy of social reforms. The Government had to face a lot of problems: unemployment, terrorist acts in Ulster and a series of strikes. They could not respect the promises they had done to the voters. There was an economic recession and a high inflation.  Because of  the heavy economic situation of the post-war years, Britain  could not maintain colonies any more; further the USA had forced Britain to grant independence to the claiming colonies.  In 1956 they lost the control of The Suez Canal which was nationalized by the Egyptians; in 1960 other colonies, among which Kenya and Cyprus, became independent. Britain, however, maintained some degree of financial preference with these countries thanks to the Commonwealth, an association of British former colonies.

In the middle of the 1960s, there was a return of the Labour Party and in 1967England joined the European Community in an attempt to solve the problems of the economic crisis. In the late 1960s there was a shift in the everlasting Irish question:England sent its troops to Northern Ireland, thus beginning a military occupation of Ulster.


People living in the 1950s had not entirely recovered from the consequences of the War. They had been shocked by the use of the atomic bombs dropped onto the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and by the atrocities that the Nazis had done in their concentration camps and their use of the gas chambers to sterminate the Jews. They feared   the power of destruction of military weapons and had realized that humanity could never survive a new war. The fear of an atomic war was increased by the tension between the two superpowers and the life of man appeared in danger. “Fear is at the very bases and foundation of modern life”, Huxley wrote  in “Ape and essence”.

On the economic field, things went well because after the difficult post-war years, Western economies, led by that of the USA, began to expand again. The working class and the lower-middle class, which had suffered a lot during the Great depression, gradually began to achieve a higher standard of living and so they were   able to buy more consumer goods than before. The New shopping Centres and Supermakets changed their shopping habits. They could now afford a car, a radio, a television, a holiday abroad, all luxuries which had once been reserved for the upper-middle and upper classes. Consequently there was an increase in demand and in production which paved the way to the so-called Consumer Society. However many English people who benefited from these new opportunities were disappointed. They were dissatisfied with the disintegration of their Empire and had to accept the new reality of Britain being no more a powerful country but a second-class power.  In the meanwhile the young Generation found that the top-jobs in society were still only open to members of the upper and upper-middle classes, to people who had been to the right school, then to the Universities of Oxford or Cambridge, and who had the right connections. They felt rejected and, as a consequence, they themselves rejected the society which had refused to admit them. There was also  dissatisfaction with the Consumer Society and Material comfort did not compensate their sense of loss and their frustrations. They began to be aware of the generation gap between their values and the ones of the older generation and struggled to create their own way of life and to find alternative satisfaction. They demanded a society where the individual was free to express his views.

The 1950s saw the birth of a teenage culture starting from the world of music. Rock-and-roll was their favourite music.The symbol of teenage culture was Elvis Presley, the King of Rock-and-roll.The American actor James Dean became a model for teenagers who tried to imitate his lifestyle.

The term “teenager” did not exist before because the youth were not considered a distinct group. They were interested in music, fashion, cigarettes, alcohol and entertainment. Towards the end of the 1950s and the early 1960s many youth groups began to appear; they were the Teddy Boys who used to wear tight trousers and draped jackets, the Hell’s Angels and the Rockers with tight jeans and leather jackets, riding motorbikes, and the Mods who were in favour of a more classical style of dressing.They had a reputation for violence and took part in street riots.

Teenage culture developed and consolidated in the 1960s. Economy went well and there was an economic boom. The youth culture, a product itself of the economic boom, thanks to the contribution of students, took an active part in the political scene. The young people shared a feeling of unity and a common belief in deep changes in society. The reaction started from Rock’n’roll Bands such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Fashion changed rapidly and Mary Quant created the Mini-skirt(actually it was the  French designer Andre Courreges to invent it)which was made famous all over the world by a model, Twiggy, and which also became the symbol of the freedom of women.She was the antithesis of the stereotype of female sexuality of the previos decade.Many people were shocked by a musical,Hair, because the actors undressed on the stage. A debate to make the drug marijuana legal started. 

London became the heart of the new fashion trends with Carnaby Street Market and Kensington Market. The great social changes in the 1960s were more evident in 1967 when homosexual relationships and abortion were legalised. The reaction of the Youth reached the climax in the end of the 60s when traditional values were rejected again and a new generation, the Hippie Generation, was born. The Hippies were different from the previous generation of the Rockers and the Mods; unlike them, who were anti-social and violent, the Hippies were pacifist. They believed in love and freedom, promoted the use of drug and communal way of living and adopted a long hair style wearing flowered ties, shirts and even trousers. Their motto was “Make love not war”. The high point in their culture was in 1969, when they meet at Woodstock concert,in the USA, and at the festival in the Isle of Wight. The Hippies, the pacifists and the students of the left-wing parties protested against the Establishment and made a series of demonstrations. Very important were the ones against the Vietnam War and the campaign for nuclear disarmament, led by the philosopher Sir Bertrand Russell.This wave of protest spread over the USA and Europe.Many young people had an interest in the theories of the philosopher Herbert Marcuse,who had a negative view on modern economics and science.Famous singer like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez supported the protest.

The economic boom of the 60s ended and the 1970s were a period of recession. Unemployment increased and as a consequence criminality began to grow. The Hooligans replaced the Hippies: they had no ideals and followed only alcohol, drug and above all violence.


The sexual revolution started in   the 1960s. Many journalists and psychologists wrote articles   speaking of sexual freedom,  inquiring the   world of sex and facing taboo topics which shocked readers.It granted  teenagers to adopt a freethinking view towards sex and allowed women to take control of their sexuality.

The so called “permissive” or “swinging sixties” was a time of revolutionary   social changes. The cultural atmosphere of the 1960s, particularly what was referred to as “the counter-culture“,associated with the rise of rock music, the increased use of marijuana, LSD, and other drugs among youth, widespread public displays of nudity, and a new openness about sexuality.It saw the birth of  many movements: the civil rights movement ,the women’s liberation movement, the gay & lesbian liberation movement,the free speech movement, the green and peace movements.

Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s the combination of student protests, counter-culture movements and medically prescribed contraceptives changed the preceding values: women’s sexuality outside marriage began to be widely accepted, homosexuals publicly declared  their homosexuality and casual sex increased.

Very influential books were: “The Sexual Revolution”,by Wilhelm Reich and “Sex and the Single Girl” (1962), by Helen Gurley Brown. Reich  argued that,being the orgasm  natural, the social control of libidinal energies by institutions, family, Church and State  was destructive and distorted psychological development. Gurley Brown,  claiming for   women’s   right to non-marital sexual pleasure, attacked the sexual double standard that required women to remain virgins before marriage while permitting men to engage in sex.

Very important researches were made by Alfred Kinsey  and William Masters and Virginia Johnson.They wanted to contradict the traditional views on sexuality and above all the Victorian view that moral women can’t experience orgasm. Kinsey  reinforced Reich’s thought of the danger of sexual repression.   He found that homosexuality was much more common that anyone realized and that    women were much more interested in sex that went beyond reproduction.

The laboratory research of Masters and Johnson reinforced Kinsey’s findings on female sexuality. Their books  showed that female sexuality wasn’t strictly analogous with   male one. Like Kinsey, they thought that women had the same physiological capacity as men to be orgasmic but also that they had a greater capacity to experience multiple orgasms.They characterized male sexuality as one-dimensional  whereas women’s one was multi-dimensional.

Of course, the sexual revolution of the 1960’s affected clothing, too.   Long skirts were discharged for short minis , revealing necklines  became the custom, and bras were taken off as a mark of independence. By 1966 Mary Quant was producing short waist skimming mini dresses and skirts that were set 6 or 7 inches above the knee.  What made the mini really acceptable was the introduction of pantyhose known mostly today as tights.


Poetry in the 50s-60s

Poetry in the 1950s reflected the post-war situation: man’s disorientation, the sense of general pessimism and disillusionment. There was no major school of thoughts, no Movement. This brought poets to be more individual in their search for something to say. The older poets of the 40s continued to produce their poetry with different contents: the Pylon Poets, now less politically motivated, went on writing about man in society describing the inhumanizing effects of modern society; the Apocalypse Poets and above all Dylan Thomas, depressed after the war, made a shift in their poetry and focused attention in the new social trend.

There were two groups of new poets: The Movement and The Group. We have, however, to underline that they were loose associations and that each poet was highly individual.

The poets belonging to The Movement reacted against the previous modern poetry; they advocated a return of poetry to clarity and order and wanted a rational poetry written in a simple language more than an irrational poetry full of symbolism. They asked for more realism in poetry. The best representatives were perhaps Thom Gunn and Philip Larkin.

In reaction to The Movement some poets published an anthology of poems titled The Group (it gave the label to the movement). They were culturally snobs and wrote for selected readers. Their poems often deal with such themes as violence, terror and sex. During this period there were some other poets who had no ties to any group or movement. Among them the most important was Ted Hughes who became the Poet Laureate in 1985. 

In the 1960s a new trend of poetry emerged: Pop Poetry, associated with pop music. The Anthology The Mersey Sound(1967) was published. It contained poems by Adrian Henry, Roger McGough and Brian Pattern who were known as The Liverpool Poets.The main themes were the daily experiences of young people, their frustrations, their disillusionment, their anti-intellectualism,their revolt against the establishment and the rejection of conventional values.   The best song-writers of the time were Bob Dylan and John Lennon, one of the Beatles.

As far as the Novel, the Angry Young Men gave voice to the anger and frustration of the young generation who had become aware of the exploitation of the poor classes. The label refers not only to the theatre but to the novel,too.The most important novelist were Kingsley Amis, Alan Sillitoe, John Braine and David Storey. The major themes were cultural and political disillusionment. These themes were not common to all novelists. Some other novelist turned to the world of imagination(J.R.R.Tolkien),wrote about homosexuality(Angus Wilson)and feminism(Doris Lessing).


About rosariomario

retired teacher docente in pensione
This entry was posted in appunti di letteratura inglese per studenti italiani e non, tratti da testi vari. Notes of English Literature for Italian/non-Italian students taken from various school textbooks. Bookmark the permalink.

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