The Rebel Cafe: America's Nightclub Underground and the Public Sphere, 1934-1963
Duncan, Stephen Riley
Gilbert, James B
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From 1934 through 1963, New York and San Francisco nightspots were community institutions and public forums for radical cultural producers, intellectuals, and political dissidents. This dissertation explores bars, nightclubs, and coffeehouses in bohemian Greenwich Village and North Beach as nodal points in alternative social networks connecting patrons and performers marginalized by their Left politics, race, gender, or sexual orientation. It traces unconventional ideas from subterranean domains through their dissemination by the mass media, examining how local political discourse and cultural diffusion informed social change in the twentieth-century United States. This study illuminates nightclubs' cultural function, shedding new light on familiar subjects such as the Beat Generation, jazz, civil rights, and social satire, and linking the Left's Cultural Front of the 1930s to 1950s dissident culture. Nightspots provide useful models to study identity formation and oppositional political consciousness, as patrons and performers challenged dominant social norms through cultural avant-gardism, explorations of sexuality and gender, and interracial alliances. Tourism, meanwhile, contributed to the extension of new social norms into the mainstream. Moreover, drinking establishments served a vital function within the public sphere as spaces of discussion and debate which both critiqued and contributed to mass-media content. As outspoken nonconformists clashed with conservative critics, the result was sometimes legal woes for oppositional figures, from the anarchist libertarians who met in urban cafes in the 1930s to gay-rights activists and the controversial comic Lenny Bruce. Yet the art, literature, music, and satire that emerged from the nightclub underground of the 1950s proved to be forces for social liberation, showing the relation between culture and politics. Subcultural networks provided psychological and material support to the budding gay liberation and feminist movements, as well as the Black Freedom Struggle. By examining the use of public space and built environments, and charting the confluence of culture, politics, and urban geography, "The Rebel Cafe" demonstrates how historical subjects transformed American society by investing nightspots with significance as sites of public discourse.