The turbulent but creative 1960s

The alienation and stress underlying the 1950s found outward expression in the 1960s in the United States in the Civil Rights Movement, feminism, antiwar protests, minority activism, and the arrival of a counterculture whose effects are still being worked through American society. Notable political and social works of the era include the speeches of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the early writings of feminist leader Betty Friedan (The Feminine Mystique, 1963), and Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night (1968), about a 1967 antiwar march.

The 1960s was marked by a blurring of the line between fiction and fact, novels and reportage, that has carried through the present day. Novelist Truman Capote -- who had dazzled readers as an enfant terrible of the late 1940s and 1950s in such works as Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958) -- stunned audiences with In Cold Blood (1966), a riveting analysis of a brutal mass murder in the American heartland that read like a work of detective fiction. At the same time, the "New Journalism" emerged -- volumes of nonfiction that combined journalism with techniques of fiction, or that frequently played with the facts, reshaping them to add to the drama and immediacy of the story being reported. Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) celebrated the antics of novelist Ken Kesey's counterculture wanderlust, and Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970) ridiculed many aspects of left-wing activism. Wolfe later wrote an exuberant and insightful history of the initial phase of the U.S. space program, The Right Stuff (1979), and a novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), a panoramic portrayal of American society in the 1980s.

As the 1960s evolved, literature flowed with the turbulence of the era. An ironic, comic vision also came into view, reflected in the fabulism of several writers. Examples include Ken Kesey's darkly comic One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962), a novel about life in a mental hospital in which the wardens are more disturbed than the inmates, and Richard Brautigan's whimsical, fantastic Trout Fishing in America (1967). The comical and fantastic yielded a new mode, half comic and half metaphysical, in Thomas Pynchon's paranoid, brilliant V (1963) and The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), John Barth's Giles Goat-Boy (1966), and the grotesque short stories of Donald Barthelme, whose first collection, Come Back, Dr. Caligari, was published in 1964.

In a different direction, in drama, Edward Albee produced a series of nontraditional psychological works -- Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), A Delicate Balance (1966), and Seascape (1975) -- that reflected the author s own soul-searching and his paradoxical approach.

At the same time, the decade saw the belated arrival of a literary talent in his forties -- Walker Percy -- a physician by training and an exemplar of southern gentility. In a series of novels, Percy used his native region as a tapestry on which to play out intriguing psychological dramas. The Moviegoer (1962) and The Last Gentleman (1966) were among his highly-praised books.