Raising the Bar

Stephen R. Duncan takes us into the historical significance of nightlife ambiance in The Rebel Café: Sex, Race, and Politics in Cold War America’s Nightclub Underground.

X-posted from the Society for US Intellectual History Book Review.

If you want to get out of America, go to Greenwich Village.

— Bob Dylan, quoting folklorist Alan Lomax[1]

Stephen Duncan’s book about the “nightclub underground” of America during the 1940s and 50s takes us to the caverns and taverns that started in subterranean quarters and eventually changed the culture, politics, and economics of the United States. While many historians have gestured to the significance of this bohemian world, few have done so with such geographic, and almost archeological, precision.[2] Using new archival sources, Duncan helps us peer more clearly into the dimly lit bars, coffeehouses, and cabarets found in neighborhoods such as San Francisco’s North Beach and New York City’s Greenwich Village. There, he notices how venues for hanging out and socializing catalyzed larger social movements and progressive politics in the United States. Even unlikely new forms of mass consumerism arose from these very places whose clientele seemed, at first glance, to be avoiding, or even resisting, mainstream forms of capitalism. In The Rebel Café, Duncan demonstrates how milieus matter, how the seemingly ephemeral turns out to be essential, how culture decisively shapes ideas, and how particular places, even obscure, marginal ones, can incubate surprisingly powerful historical forces.

Overall, Duncan’s innovation is to get us into the details of hazy, half-forgotten atmospheres, but rather than merely romanticize bohemian nightlife as a vague context of rebellion, Duncan shows how casual conversations, interactions, entertainments, performances, and activities wound up gathering unexpected weight and momentum. They ultimately inspired sturdier and more lasting transformations. The watering holes and gathering spots of bohemian Greenwich Village and North Beach, he contends, supported “a diverse coalition of devotees, including artists, performers, and audiences, united in an informal project to redefine the meaning of America, placing an experimental pluralism alongside demands for personal liberty” (2). Theirs was a resolutely cultural project, but to Duncan it had profound political implications. “Tucked away in the underground,” he contends, “politically conscious cultural producers carried forward a species of left-wing activism that repopulated American politics in the 1960s” (3). As Duncan tells the story, collective democracy, individual freedom, and the very reimagining of the American project itself were at stake.

One might say that with The Rebel Café, Stephen Duncan has written an institutional history of a resolutely anti-institutional topic: nightlife.[3] It is a refreshing approach. Too often, contemporary historians mistakenly picture culture as the result of politics. Culture becomes but politics’ more meager outcome. Duncan works against the assumption that politics is the all-encompassing domain in which culture is but a part. He wants his readers to notice how power itself sometimes gets generated in the most unlikely of places. Not that Duncan idealizes the “rebel café,” a term he adapts from the poet Allen Ginsberg. He certainly wants us to notice its fraught, vexing history. He wants us to pay attention to its politics. Nonetheless, his book is keen to show how culture produces politics, not the reverse. Grounded (undergrounded?) in careful archival research, The Rebel Café unearths the seemingly buried remains of a once vibrant cultural upheaval that many think simply vanished into the wee hours of the past. Bringing us into the key locales of a bicoastal network that linked Greenwich Village and North Beach, Duncan shows how they nurtured postwar rebellion. This is a consequential study of nascent activities, a stupendous act of recovery that helps us see better the faint, sketchy glimmers of historical change in postwar life. While he never fully explains why we should not also be looking at Chicago, Los Angeles, or global circuits of nightlife, he convincingly shows how New York City and San Francisco were exemplary spots. Moreover, Duncan offers new metaphors for how we might think about the importance of culture itself no matter where it does its thing. His book raises the bar both on how we can understand postwar America and how we might conceptualize the very methods of cultural history.

In The Rebel Café, Duncan takes us through six chapters that are both chronological and distinctively thematic. The first two provide background on the role of nightspots. They were “places of public discussion” that smuggled the ethos and networks of the 1930s Popular Front, that mix of radicals and liberals focused on expanding the New Deal State and its base of industrial unions, right past the McCarthyism of the 1950s (14) For Duncan, if one looks to the “nocturnal underground,” one glimpses continuities rather than the rupture of the Red Scare that many historians typically note.[4] Painters at the Cedar Tavern, the anarcho-syndicalist poets such as Kenneth Rexroth at the Black Cat in San Francisco, Gay poets such as Robert Duncan and Allen Ginsberg, and women artists ranging from Anaïs Nin to Judith Molina of the Living Theater to Maya Angelou settled into these locales for their restless efforts to forge new paths in artmaking and politics.

This smuggled Popular Front culture was a man’s world, to be sure, but not one without opportunities for proto-feminist activities. “Unconventional women who claimed a public voice within the Rebel Café were part of a broad public discussion in which the media interacted with subterranean bar talk,” Duncan explains, “resulting in a conversation that helped to transform American gender norms” (210). His point is neither that these activities were more important than politics, nor that the social movements that followed in their wake during the 1960s and 70s were any less important. Rather, Duncan wants us to glimpse the “early stirrings” of postwar social transformations (210). Clubs such as San Francisco’s Black Cat also figured in legal struggles for gay liberation. Drawing on the work of Nan Alamilla Boyd, Duncan points out that Black Cat owner Sol Stoumen’s 1951 California Supreme Court case Stoumen v. Reilly, which prevented the removal of liquor licenses based on the sexuality of customers, “cannot be divorced from the café’s bohemian and leftist history” (210).[5] Instead, we must grasp “the absorption of sexuality into a larger liberatory program” (69). While today, identity politics stratifies movements for women’s, gay, Black, and myriad other rights into discrete efforts, Duncan wants us to notice how much they intersected, interacted, and intertwined in the smoky dens of 1950s bohemia.

Chapters three, four, and five concentrate on this bohemian nightlife in its heyday. Duncan examines, respectively, jazz, the Beats, and nightclub comedy. Here issues of race, community, and free speech move to the fore. Duncan contends, convincingly, that the milieu of the Rebel Café contributed to the “integrationist imperative” of “cross-racial exchange” and the “universalist ethos” of jazz. Ultimately, it provided one base for direct participation in the Black liberation struggle (80). This was because while race in the nocturnal underground was anything but utopian, and repeatedly it was shaped by overly romanticized tropes, the milieu of the Rebel Café did see the “the slow transformation and gradual erosion of social hierarchy” (100). Meanwhile, Beat writers led the charge of a bohemian search for community. A café such as the Coexistence Bagel Shop became what one historian has called a “bohemian news center,” and bicoastal, even nascent international networks arose as alternatives to Eisenhower America in the 1950s and the constraints of the Cold War (127).[6] People of all sorts moved through these spaces. Women pursued new modes of authenticity despite the continued misogyny of the Rebel Café (62-63, 146-149, 210-219, 235). Socialists such as Michael Harrington combined an anti-Stalinist democratic socialist politics with long hours drinking and chatting at places such as the White Horse Tavern (150, 205). In the post-New Deal compression of wealth across the spectrum of American society, what the poet Gary Snyder called “proletarian bohemians” arose alongside the more traditional slumming of upper-class hipsters (151).

For Duncan, one began to see this underground culture trespass on mainstream life with the emergence of comics such as Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, and Dick Gregory. Sahl created a bridge from bohemian clubs to the comedic style of both the collegiate set and the Rat Pack (156-157). Lenny Bruce introduced a new insistence on authenticity, claiming his nightclub act wasn’t an act at all. His arrests and subsequent trials created as much publicity as his startling performances themselves (167-184). Dick Gregory used his success in the nightclubs of the “rebel café” to attain a more widespread success, but at the same time, the African American comic forcefully brought civil rights struggles with him from the underground (184-192). The question, however, of how successful Rebel Café nightlife culture was at pushing forward larger political goals remains unclear. The anarcho-libertarian openness of these spaces, so potent for making them zones of escape for misfits, artists, bohemians, and radicals in postwar America, also, Duncan claims, “nudged out attention to structural inequality and systems of power” (227-228). Even their modes of critique could, as Duncan is quick to notice, divide. Middle-class Americans might feel smugly superior when defending Lenny Bruce’s freedom of speech, and maybe even agreeing with the content of his critiques, but the comic’s harsh, frank rhetoric of rejection and rebellion, hip as it might have been, quickly alienated working-class Americans who were desperate to hang on to the precarious new stability they had secured during the post-New Deal, post-World War II liberal consensus.[7] One could not build a mass political movement from this particular subterranean culture of rebellion, for “its lack of attention to economics left its politics atomized and effective only at the margins.” It could not sustain “significant cross-class alliances” (228). So much, I guess, for Gary Snyder’s “proletarian bohemians” (151).

Neither could the Rebel Café, as constituted in postwar America, conquer dilemmas of gender or race or sexual equality. Nonetheless, Duncan recovers the stories of figures who tried and ways in which underground nightlife marked an essential launching ground for larger changes. Bob Kaufman, for instance, appears as a fantastically sophisticated bohemian activist in San Francisco (142, 200-201). Duncan points to the obvious Rebel Café origins of the Stonewall Riots that sparked the gay liberation movement in the late 1960s (235-236). We learn how the urban reforms of Jane Jacobs had deep connections to the nightclubs and bars of Greenwich Village (206). Duncan even notes how the radical separatist Black activism of Amiri Baraka and the Umbra group used the Rebel Café’s infrastructure to develop programs and campaigns (236). When it comes to the social movements of the 1960s as a whole, Duncan believes that “the relevance of bohemia in the 1950s was its willingness to relinquish at least some privileges of race and class, and to think outside the lines about what the shape of the nation should be” (236). For Duncan, “the bohemians of North Beach and Greenwich VIllage recognized this and attempted, however fumblingly, to devise a new kind of community in response” (236). It is easy to dismiss the botched attempts to be different, but maybe it us just as crucial to notice, as Duncan does, the moments when the underground simmered, imperfectly, with possibilities.

Eventually, however, the mainstream won out. As chapter six of The Rebel Café explains, by the 1960s, “the Rebel Café was no longer underground, but instead became indistinguishable from American culture as a whole” (186). This is a well-known argument about cooptation of cultural rebellion made in one form or another by everyone from Todd Gitlin to Alice Echols to Thomas Frank (just to name a few of its proponents). Frank has most intriguingly contended that it was never anything but part of the so-called “establishment.” Hip nightlife rebellion was as much a movement within the glass window office towers of corporate consumer marketing departments as it was a creature from the depths of the nocturnal underworld.[9] Duncan does not do enough to respond to Frank’s contentions, but his research suggests that while to be sure there were porous, Mad Men-like lines of connection between nightlife culture and new strategies of corporate advertising, there were also noticeable distinctions. This was particularly the case with origins. While Frank wants to emphasize that postwar rebellion was nothing more than a lifestyle creation of Madison Avenue, Duncan wants us to go downtown. In the nightlife underground, he contends, “past programs like the Popular Front” lingered. Eventually they “threaded their way through the culture industry’s large corporations” (197). While Frank wants to root styles of countercultural rebellion solely in the business history of marketing and advertising itself, Duncan insists that we miss the importance of the alternative commercial and cultural worlds that developed outside, down below, and way out beyond mass consumer capitalism during the Cold War.

This is, one could argue, a return to an older historical narrative about how 1930s radicalism was repressed by 1950s McCarthyism, but then, perhaps out of the intensity of the repression itself, regenerated into the revolutions of the 1960s. Duncan, however, brings the narrative back into view with far more texture, using ample archival evidence to take us beyond the Don Draperian imagination into the crucible of the “rebel café” itself. There, Duncan argues, radical new ideas arose from the immediacy of concrete experiences. Take the case of Susan Sontag. Duncan uncovers how her influential theories of the “new sensibility” and “camp” arose directly from exploits she shared in the San Francisco queer underground. It was not some Madison Avenue advertisement that made Sontag think in new ways. It was going on zany, erotic adventures with figures such as Peggy Tolk-Watkins and Sontag’s sometime lover Harriet Zwerling (210-219). When Sontag eventually wrote, in Against Interpretation, that “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art,” she was, Duncan contends, thinking of places such as the famous Tin Angel club in San Francisco. Her cultural criticism cut right through mass consumer culture, raising up the underground ethos of the rebel café to more elevated intellectual climes (219).

Duncan’s book is full of these sorts of details, stories, and contexts that gave rise, he believes, to key aspects of postwar American culture. We can only access them, however, by shifting from mechanistic and formulaic methodological approaches to something more like, modifying Sontag’s phrase, a kind of “erotics of history.” In place of simplistic assumptions about cause and effect, politics, society, and culture, agency and structure, Duncan reaches for modes of historical reasoning that roar past even the “dialectic,” with its perhaps-now antiquated portrayal of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. To him, the stale use of the dialectic masks far more complex and intriguing historical processes. True, he hangs on to the dialectic, writing: “If there is a single lesson to be learned from the Rebel Café, it is that the political/cultural dichotomy is a false one. They are always in a dialectic relationship, continually in tension, each breaking down and reconstituting the other.”[36] But more intriguingly, Duncan also leaps into new and far more intriguing theorizations of how history works when he writes:

The notion of culture as a dialectic, however, is too simplistic to capture the complexity of such sociocultural change. Rather than picturing polar opposites and a mediating synthesis, a better metaphor is that of various forms of culture as waves that crash onto the beach of society. Just as there are multiple and massive forces driving every wave, each is equally shaped by its landfall. No two waves are ever the same. And with each incoming crash, the beach itself is also reshaped, transformed at a granular level that only becomes recognizable when the shoreline changes enough to have to redraw the maps.[37]

In passages such as this one, The Rebel Café becomes not only a contribution to the tale of postwar bohemian culture in the United States, but also an update to the broader methods of cultural history. This larger contribution comes, one might say paradoxically, from Duncan’s attention to specificity. It is only if we picture “various forms of culture as waves that crash onto the beach of society,” he writes, we can begin to see how “the beach itself is also reshaped, transformed at a granular level.”

As Duncan ably demonstrates in The Rebel Café, careful archival research and attention to the gritty details of lifeworlds and locales are essential to narratives of more amorphous historical change (and continuity we might add). Out of the places, the ideas. Out of the texture, the transformations. Out of the details, the development. Minutiae turn out to be more than miniscule factors. Culture might even be the base, not the superstructure. When it comes to history, things change, but they often change almost imperceptibly. We do not always notice them shifting when we look to the more typical scales of historical temporality. Yet, as Duncan argues about the effects of 1950s nightspots, “The molecular processes of conversation and critique, fundamental to public discourse and increasingly disseminated through print culture, slowly formulated opportunities for further, more visible demands for both individual and collective liberation.”[38] Or as Bob Dylan sang, “There was music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air.”[39] Ambiance can be a historical force. If not the zeitgeist, atmosphere is something that profoundly affects what happens next. In Stephen Duncan’s book, we learn how mood mattered in the 1940s and 50s. Nightlife was always more than just a vibe. In The Rebel Café, it becomes even more than that.

[1] Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume 1 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 55. Alan Lomax was a folklorist and music documentarian who inspired Dylan and many others. See John Szwed, Alan Lomax: The Man Who Recorded the World (New York: Viking, 2010).

[2] Among other studies see W. T. Lhamon, Jr., Deliberate Speed: The Origins of a Cultural Style in the American 1950s, with a New Preface (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990; 2nd edition, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002); George Cotkin, Existential America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003; George Cotkin, Feast of Excess: A Cultural History of the New Sensibility (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); Robert Genter, Late Modernism: Art, Culture, and Politics in Cold War America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011); Grace Elizabeth Hale, A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); Kevin Mattson, Intellectuals in Action: The Origins of the New Left and Radical Liberalism, 1945-1970 (State College: Penn State Press, 2010); Leerom Medovoi, Rebels: Youth and the Cold War Origins of Identity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005); James J. Farrell, The Spirit of the Sixties: The Making of Postwar Radicalism (New York: Routledge, 1997); and Paul Boyer, By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985).

[3] Duncan’s study follows in the tradition of scholarship such as (just to name a few): John F. Kasson, Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978); Lewis A. Erenberg, Steppin’ Out: New York Nightlife and the Transformation of American Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984); Katy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986); Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1997); Randy McBee, Dance Hall Days: Intimacy and Leisure Among Working-Class Immigrants in the United States (New York: New York University Press, 2000); Burton W. Peretti, Nightclub City: Politics and Amusement in Manhattan (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007); and Sherrie Tucker, Dance Floor Democracy: The Social Geography of Memory at the Hollywood Canteen (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).

[4] For the argument that the Red Scare marked the end of the Popular Front, see books such as Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (New York: Verso, 1996). Duncan focuses on culture rather than politics, but his book echoes studies emphasizing continuity, such as Maurice Isserman, If I Had a Hammer…: The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left (New York: Basic Books, 1989).

[5] See Nan Alamilla Boyd, Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

[6] Quote from Bill Morgan, The Beat Generation in San Francisco: A Literary Tour (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2003), 50.

[7] This echoes the findings of Warren Bareiss, “Middlebrow Knowingness in 1950s San Francisco: The Kingston Trio, Beat Counterculture, and the Production of ‘Authenticity’,” Popular Music and Society 33, 1 (2010): 9–33.

[8] See arguments in Gitlin, The Sixties; Echols, Shaky Ground; Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin, America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); and countless other studies.

[9] Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam Books, 1987); Alice Echols, Shaky Ground: The ’60s and Its Aftershocks (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002); and Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

[10]Bob Dylan, “Tangled Up In Blue,” Blood on the Tracks (Columbia PC 33235, 1974).

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