Youth and the Cold War Origins of Identity


New Americanists

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Book Pages: 400 Illustrations: 37 b&w photos Published: November 2005

Author: Leerom Medovoi

American Studies, Cultural Studies, Media Studies > Film

Holden Caulfield, the beat writers, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and James Dean—these and other avatars of youthful rebellion were much more than entertainment. As Leerom Medovoi shows, they were often embraced and hotly debated at the dawn of the Cold War era because they stood for dissent and defiance at a time when the ideological production of the United States as leader of the “free world” required emancipatory figures who could represent America’s geopolitical claims. Medovoi argues that the “bad boy” became a guarantor of the country’s anti-authoritarian, democratic self-image: a kindred spirit to the freedom-seeking nations of the rapidly decolonizing third world and a counterpoint to the repressive conformity attributed to both the Soviet Union abroad and America’s burgeoning suburbs at home.

Alongside the young rebel, the contemporary concept of identity emerged in the 1950s. It was in that decade that “identity” was first used to define collective selves in the politicized manner that is recognizable today: in terms such as “national identity” and “racial identity.” Medovoi traces the rapid absorption of identity themes across many facets of postwar American culture, including beat literature, the young adult novel, the Hollywood teen film, early rock ‘n’ roll, black drama, and “bad girl” narratives. He demonstrates that youth culture especially began to exhibit telltale motifs of teen, racial, sexual, gender, and generational revolt that would burst into political prominence during the ensuing decades, bequeathing to the progressive wing of contemporary American political culture a potent but ambiguous legacy of identity politics.


Rebels illustrates the more crucial challenge about the relationship between liberalism, identity, and ‘politics’ as an identitarian practice, which can reach uncomfortably far back into the ideological, economic, and historical roots of the suburbs themselves.” — Victor Cohen, Minnesota Review

“[A]n approachable and well-reasoned work on the cultural contexts of rebellion and identity. . . . [A]n effective study in the origins of the American-influenced themes dominant in popular culture today.” — Andy Lonsdale, M/C Reviews

“[T]his is a strong, interesting book that has some new insights into familiar texts from the 1950s and makes us think again about texts we easily dismiss as unimportant to the Cold War discourse of identity.” — Jay Mechling, Pacific Historical Review

“Medovoi’s Rebels is a hefty contribution to our evolving understanding of mid-century culture. . . . Medovoi moves cold war studies in new directions by examining the rise of identity as a concept after World War II and then by showing how the identification of ‘rebel’ was linked to national allegories about democratic freedom. . . . What is perhaps the most exciting about Medovoi’s thesis is that is helps us understand how the fifties became the sixties.” — Steven Belletto, Contemporary Literature

“Medovoi’s thesis is both simple and elegant: that the rebel, particularly ‘the bad boy,’ was a necessary part of 1950s popular culture as a corollary and corrective to the man in the gray flannel suit. . . . . Medovoi does an excellent job of working through the existing scholarship on the 1950s and, in particular, recent discussions of masculinity in the postwar era. . . . Medovoi’s analysis of rock ’n’ roll as a cultural phenomenon is particularly useful.” — Sarah E. Chinn, GLQ

Rebels is a great book about bad boys and girls, melodrama and rock ‘n’ roll, and the emergence of ‘identity’ as a site of social concern and capitalist fantasy: a focused, engaging revision of white Cold War pop culture aesthetics in the United States.” — Lauren Berlant, author of The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship

“This is a bold and original study of Cold War masculinity, one that will force scholars to reconsider many of their assumptions about the gender and sexual politics of Cold War culture. In showing how the ‘bad boy’ functioned as a sign of democratic possibility, Leerom Medovoi opens up new ways of thinking about the relation between the 1950s and 1960s.” — Robert J. Corber, author of Homosexuality in Cold War America: Resistance and the Crisis of Masculinity


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Leerom Medovoi is Associate Professor of English at Portland State University and Director of the Portland Center for Cultural Studies.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments vii

1. Identitarian Thought and the Cold War World 1

2. Cold War Literature and the National Allegory: The Identity Canon of Holden Caulfield 53

3. Transcommodification: Rock ‘n’ Roll and the Suburban Counterimaginary 91

4. Identity Hits the Screen: Teenpics and the Boying of Rebellion 135

5. Oedipus in Suburbia: Bad Boy and the Fordist Family Drama 167

6. Beat Fraternity and the Generation of Identity 215

7. Where the Girls Were: Figuring the Female Rebel 317

Conclusion: The Rise and Fall of Identity 331

Notes 359

Works Cited 377

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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3692-1 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3680-8
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