9 American Countercultural Books
The word counterculture generally refers to any movement that strives to achieve ideals counter to those of mainstream society. During the 1960s and ’70s, people—particularly young people—in many Western countries sought to upend what they saw as outdated and restrictive values. In the United States this countercultural spirit manifested itself in multiple ways, from the fight for racial justice and women’s rights to the rejection by some middle-class young adults of their parents’ lifestyles. Writers of different backgrounds and experiences—more than are included in this selective list—both documented and shaped the era’s counterculture. While counterculture may not be a literary genre per se, it’s a useful label for these nine books, each of which embodies America’s countercultural impulses in its own, sometimes unexpected ways.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957)
On the Road is a foundational text of the American countercultural canon. Jack Kerouac based his novel on his relationship with fellow Beat poet and adventurer Neal Cassady, who appears in the book as Dean Moriarty. Kerouac himself is the basis for protagonist Sal Paradise, and a number of other characters are representative of people in Kerouac’s life. The novel, told in five parts, details various adventures taken by Sal and Dean. Sex, drugs, and jazz are the foundation from which characters like Dean grow, forcing Sal to contemplate the implications of freedom and contempt for conformity. Sal begins to travel across the United States, sometimes with Dean by his side, and broadens his perspectives through the situations he encounters. As the novel progresses, Sal begins to understand the complexity of freedom, ending with a reflection on his journeys and Dean’s role in his life.
Kerouac wrote On the Road in just three weeks. It came from the journals he kept while traveling the country with Cassady, and he typed it onto a scroll of taped-together paper about 120 feet (37 meters) long. Kerouac employed a stream of consciousness technique, approaching the novel casually as if it were a letter to a friend.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson (1971)
Similar to Kerouac’s On the Road, Hunter S. Thompson’s novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is autobiographical in nature. The story is based on two trips to Las Vegas taken by Thompson and his attorney, Oscar Zeta Acosta, in an attempt to gather information for articles commissioned by Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone. Protagonist Raoul Duke, Thompson’s literary double, goes to Las Vegas with attorney Dr. Gonzo, Acosta’s fictional counterpart. While there, Duke and Dr. Gonzo are meant to report on the Mint 400 motorcycle race, but they are constantly interrupted by their intensive use of recreational drugs including LSD, cocaine, cannabis, and alcohol. During bouts of hallucinogenic experiences, the two ponder the meaning of the “American Dream” and the counterculture.
Thompson’s recounting of the past in a manner than blends both fact and fiction gave rise to the genre of gonzo journalism, an inherently countercultural method of reporting.
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (1963)
The Fire Next Time contains two essays by James Baldwin that challenge race relations. The first, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation,” details the treatment of Black people in American history. Baldwin’s letter serves to educate the nephew, but it also subtly becomes a call to action for African American people, that they must continue to push for true freedom. It culminates in the argument that the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation is being celebrated 100 years too early. The second essay, “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind,” recounts Baldwin’s experiences with Christianity, the relationship between race and religion in general, and the Islamic ideals of African Americans in Harlem. Through these epistolary essays, Baldwin sought to counter the culture that had oppressed Black Americans for centuries.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five is a satirical semi-autobiographical account of World War II. The novel follows, by use of an unreliable narrator, the story of U.S. soldier Billy Pilgrim. Pilgrim’s life is recounted in flashbacks, making the story appear out of chronological order. He begins as a chaplain’s assistant, hating war and refusing to fight. He is then captured by German troops during the Battle of the Bulge and survives a series of events that eventually lead to his rescue on V-E Day. After being treated for PTSD and settling down with a wife and children, Pilgrim is abducted by Tralfamadorians, aliens from the planet Tralfamador. He is placed in a zoo exhibit with Montana Wildhack, another human. They fall in love and have a child, but Pilgrim is sent back to Earth immediately after. Pilgrim is eventually shot and killed by a hit man years later, after giving a speech on death, at a baseball stadium. The novel counters war in a satirical manner while also promoting a fatalistic view, one that was held by the Tralfamadorians and eventually by Pilgrim himself at the end of the novel.
Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein (1961)
Stranger in a Strange Land is a science fiction novel by Robert Heinlein that follows the life of Valentine Michael Smith, a man who was born in space and raised on Mars. Smith arrives on Earth for the first time at age 25 and encounters a society far different from that of the Martians. In a post-World War III United States, organized religion holds immense power. Smith befriends Gillian, Ben, and Jubal, who help him to escape from government officials. Smith eventually creates the Church of All Worlds in response to the corrupt religions he encounters. Within this church is a familiar sort of counterculture: open sexuality and rejection of commonly accepted laws of conformity. Members of the church learn the Martian language under Smith and eventually develop psychokinetic abilities. Smith is killed by a mob of protesters who insist that his new church is blasphemous. The book ends with the implication that Valentine Michael Smith was in fact an incarnation of an archangel.
The original name of the novel was The Heretic, which furthers the implications of a divergence from contemporary religion and, therefore, cultural structure. In 2012 the Library of Congress named it a “Book That Shaped America.” An uncensored version of the novel was published in 1991, containing even more countercultural statements that had been removed by publishers on account of the shocking nature of their implications.
One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (1962)
Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest provides an allegorical approach to counterculture. The novel, set in an Oregon psychiatric hospital, is narrated by “Chief” Bromden—who is half Native American. Chief recounts the story of patient Randle Patrick McMurphy, who faked insanity to keep himself out of jail and was allowed to serve his sentence in a psychiatric hospital. He is constantly stirring the pot and creating chaos between the patients and the nurses. After one of the patients commits suicide, McMurphy is blamed by a nurse with whom he has constantly clashed. He lashes out and attacks her, which results in him receiving a lobotomy and being condemned to a vegetative state. Chief escapes the hospital, smothering McMurphy in an act of mercy before fleeing to freedom. The novel is seen as an antiestablishment allegory, the hospital and nurses representing the overbearing government and McMurphy the counterculture.
The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (1963)
The Feminine Mystique attacked the mid-20th-century understanding of a woman’s function in American society. Betty Friedan conducted and recorded a plethora of research, eventually publishing it as a book because mainstream magazines would not publish her original article. She begins her book by identifying “the problem that has no name” as the unhappiness felt by American women in the 20th century. She argues that this feeling was perpetuated by the slow narrowing of the lives of women into solely domestic roles. The following 14 chapters of her best-selling book detail her extensive research, explaining in layperson’s terms the function of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Freudian theory, and other psychological concepts that helped to explain the widespread feelings of women in the 1950s and onward. She ends by suggesting ways in which America can prevent itself from falling further into this trap.
The Feminine Mystique had a galvanizing effect on second-wave feminism in the United States during the 1960s and ’70s, though its problematic treatment of race and class—something present in other books in this list—became increasingly apparent. Writing and teaching by bell hooks, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, and Angela Davis, among others, provide Black feminist perspectives that counter Friedan’s arguments.
Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman (1971)
Abbie Hoffman published Steal This Book as a guide to acting against the government. The book is divided into three sections—“Survive!”, “Fight!”, and “Liberate!”—with multiple subchapters. Written in the style of a how-to manual for members of the counterculture, Steal This Book is a snapshot of the hippie movement and the ideals it perpetuated. Subsections include information detailing how to successfully grow cannabis, protest, live in a commune, and—as the title indicates—shoplift. It was so provocative that Hoffman eventually created his own publishing company, Pirate Editions, in order to sell the book, as other publishers were afraid to attach their names to it. Though it was scarcely advertised, Steal This Book became very successful and was immortalized by the Woodstock Nation, who adopted Hoffman’s term for America, “Pig Nation,” as their own.
Hoffman cofounded the Youth International Party—the “Yippies,” a countercultural political party.
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962)
In 1962 Rachel Carson was a best-selling science writer who had won a National Book Award after a 16-year career as a biologist working for the U.S. government—not exactly countercultural credentials. But when Silent Spring was published that year, first in The New Yorker and then as a book, her bleak depiction of the environmental harm being caused by pesticides showed her to be a woman demanding change. Carson successfully countered a culture that was complacent about how it was poisoning Earth. Her book became a best seller in the United States, infuriated the chemical industry, spurred a presidential investigation, contributed to the eventual banning of DDT, and shaped the modern environmental movement.