Here’s a look at just seven writers, artists, and cultural “disruptors” who went on to become cultural icons in their own right.
Two years ago, a survey from the National Endowment for the Arts revealed that poetry was experiencing a significant comeback. Over the span of just five years, the number of adults in the United States reading poetry doubled.
In our uncertain social and political climate, more of us are turning to literature for comfort, inspiration, and motivation. In turn, many of today’s writers are tackling the most pressing issues of our time, from the #MeToo movement to the climate crisis to everything in-between.
Poets, novelists, and comedians have long voiced national and global anxieties, fears, desires, and hopes. In the mid-20th Century, American writers and artists helped shape and spur their own counter-cultural movement, and their legacies continue to inform our society today.
Anaïs Nin (1903-1977)
Anaïs Nin became just as famous for her journals as she was for being a feminist. Image via AP/Shutterstock.
This French-born writer first started her now-famous diaries at the young age of eleven. While those early writings were initially intended as letters to her father, her mother ultimately persuaded her not to send them (the couple was, by then, estranged).
As a young adult, Nin read and analyzed the controversial novels of D.H. Lawrence, a bold choice for a woman at that time. Later, she navigated the male-dominated literary landscape of the 1940s, frequently drawing on her personal life and touching on subjects that had rarely been broached — female sexuality, illegal abortions, extramarital affairs.
Anaïs Nin in the film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954). Image via AP/Shutterstock.
In her time, Nin faced rejection. Many of her novels were self-published. Throughout the years, she has been criticized for her rejection of society’s rules, as well as the conventional roles she was expected to fill as a woman of her generation.
Still, her legacy continues to inspire young writers and artists. By the time she reached her sixties and seventies, she’d made an indelible mark on literary history. Her openness with fans, and her willingness to share her personal life publicly, has been described by some as a precursor to the modern age of social media and blogging.
Charles Bukowski (1920-1994)
This German-American poet and novelist spent his early years working as a dishwasher, truck driver, orderly, and mailman, writing whenever he could. In 1946, he took a break from writing — drinking and traveling extensively over the course of a decade — before returning to the page in 1956.
Charles Bukowski in San Pedro, CA. (1981). Image via AP/Shutterstock.
From there, he became a fixture in underground literary magazines and alternative publications. He found his literary alter ego in the character Henry Chinaski — a nihilistic, womanizing, alcohol-addicted writer who worked as a mail carrier.
A still photo of Bukowski from the documentary Born Into This. Image via AP/Shutterstock.
Bukowski’s America — and his California — was a dystopian one, pock-marked by violence and brutality. His philosophy earned him devoted fans and critics alike. In 1968, the FBI even conducted an investigation into his background and involvement with the underground LA newspaper Open City. The poet himself famously remarked, “I am a dangerous man when turned loose with a typewriter.”
Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)
Sylvia Plath’s tumultuous life began at a very early age. Image via AP/Shutterstock.
This American writer published her first poem when she was eight years old. It appeared in the children’s section of the Boston Herald. That same year, her father died — an event that marked her in profound and mysterious ways.
Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes on their honeymoon in Paris (1956). Image via AP/Shutterstock.
Throughout her life, Plath continued to write, even when others rejected her instincts or found her work uncomfortable. In 1962, The Bell Jar — a novel that, in many ways, echoed the author’s own history — was rejected. While editors enjoyed the beginning, some found the breakdown and attempted suicide of her protagonist, Esther, difficult to accept.
Sylvia Plath with her two children and her mother Aurelia in Devon, England (1962). Image via AP/Shutterstock.
As the writer Janet Malcolm would later write for The New Yorker, Plath confronted the painful, fraught subjects her contemporaries avoided. “For goodness sake, stop being so frightened of everything,” she wrote in a 1962 letter to her mother. “It’s too bad my poems frighten you — but you’ve always been afraid of reading or seeing the world’s hardest things — like Hiroshima, the Inquisition, or Belsen.”
Sylvia Plath after her nervous breakdown (1954). Image via AP/Shutterstock.
The poet died at the age of thirty, in 1963. The New York Times published her obituary, in 2018, as part of their “Overlooked” series. The headline? “A postwar poet unafraid to confront her own despair.”
Joan Didion (1934-Present)
Joan Didion at her home in Malibu (1977). Image via AP/Shutterstock.
Didion defies easy categorization. She’s written across genres, publishing everything from novels, non-fiction, and memoir, to films and plays for the stage. But, perhaps she said it best (and most succinctly) back in 1969 when she described herself for Life magazine: “You are getting a woman who, for some time now, has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest other people.”
Didion is known for her unconventional and frank approach to her narrative. Image via AP/Shutterstock.
In the 1960s, Didion covered the Hippie Movement in the Haight-Ashbury, with strict unsentimentality, uncovering the stories of runaways, poets, and drug dealers. In 1991, she wrote about the case of the Central Park jogger in New York, bringing to light the injustice that ran through the media’s portrayal of the story, more than ten years before the “Central Park Five” were exonerated.
Joan and her husband, John, being interviewed in their Malibu home (1977). Image via AP/Shutterstock.
In 2005, she turned her eyes inwards, following her own grief after the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. In 2011, she’d write about the death of her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne. Throughout her career, she moved within the boundaries of being an outside observer and a player in the narrative, a social critic and an American icon in the making.
Joan Didion near a painting of her daughter, Quintana, in her New York apartment. Image via AP/Shutterstock.
Whether she wrote about politics and news or the rhythms of her daily life and grief, Didion cut through the fantasies and deceptions of American life to reveal a truth that was ambiguous and uncertain. “Everything I was taught seems beside the point,” she wrote for Life in an essay titled “A Problem of Making Connections.”
“The point, itself, seems increasingly obscure.”
George Carlin (1937-2008)
Comedian George Carlin discusses politics during a news conference in Los Angeles. Image via AP/Shutterstock.
By the end of the 1960s, this stand-up comedian and social critic had left behind his mainstream persona, reinventing himself as an anti-establishment, counterculture hero. He tackled everything from religion to politics to drugs, confronting the flaws of conventional thinking and challenging “the powers that be.”
Carlin is best known for his revolution-style attitude concerning the hypocritical conventions in our society. Image via AP/Shutterstock.
One of his best-known routines, Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television — which he satirized the use of various obscenities — led to several controversies, including an arrest in 1972 (the case was dismissed), and, more famously, a 1978 Supreme Court case that granted the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) the ability to censor “indecent” content on radio and television.
Milwaukee Police officers lead comedian George Carlin off the Summerfest grounds in Milwaukee, Wis. He was arrested after his act, which included a social commentary about censorship. Image via AP/Shutterstock.
Today, Carlin is remembered as one of the most important comedians of the 20th century, a formidable First Amendment activist, and defender of free speech.
Carlin continues to be revered in the world of entertainment. Image via AP/Shutterstock.
Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005)
Portrait of a young Hunter S. Thompson. Image via AP/Shutterstock.
As another important figure in New Journalism (along with Joan Didion), this writer and counterculture icon pioneered the sub-genre he called “Gonzo Journalism” — where he served not as a neutral observer but as an active participant.
Hunter S. Thompson showing off his athletic side. Image via AP/Shutterstock.
Thompson spent two years riding motorcycles with the Hell’s Angels, resulting in a book published in 1967. Four years later, he traveled to Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle race on assignment for Sports Illustrated.
What was initially meant to be a 250-word “photo caption” evolved into a 2,500-word exploration of American counterculture and the failures of the preceding decade, as seen through a prism of drugs, music, and the desert sun. Although Sports Illustrated rejected the piece, it ultimately became the novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, first published in Rolling Stone.
Thompson’s Gonzo Journalism shook the political scene with his brutally honest accounts of current events. Image via AP/Shutterstock.
Later, Thompson covered politics and the 1972 presidential campaign, tearing apart the “fatcats” in Washington and remaining outspoken about his opinions on those in power. In 2004, he penned his final story for Rolling Stone, urging readers to vote.
Thompson was known to have a drink at any hour of the day. Image via AP/Shutterstock.
Thompson committed suicide in 2005. His parting wish was that his ashes be shot from a cannon under the full moon. It was granted, as more than two hundred people turned up at his Colorado home to remember him.
Richard Pryor (1940-2005)
Pryor’s comedic angle concerning racism shined a much-needed light on our nation’s history. Image via AP/Shutterstock.
This stand-up comedian and writer helped reinterpret — and reshape — American culture during the 1970s-80s, confronting the nation’s history of racism head-on and blurring the lines between comedy and social criticism.
Pryor drew on personal tragedy for many of his topics. Image via AP/Shutterstock.
Pryor broke several taboos of the day, speaking openly about sex, race, and drugs — all while defying the conventions of mainstream comedy. He also drew frequently from his own past, including painful moments from his childhood growing up in a brothel in Peoria, Illinois, and later, an incident in which he burned more than fifty percent of his body (he nearly died).
Richard Pryor performing at the Cafe Wha?. Image via AP/Shutterstock.
Even at the end of his life, when multiple sclerosis left him wheelchair-bound, the comedian continued to perform. To hear his widow, Jennifer Pryor, tell it, the stage was his form of talk therapy. “Like gills on a fish, being on that stage was what mattered to Richard,” she told ABCNews earlier this year.
Richard Prior at the benefit concert Wattstax in 1973. Image via AP/Shutterstock.
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