The art and antics of rebellious figures in 1950s American nightlife―from the Beat Generation to eccentric jazz musicians and comedians―have long fascinated fans and scholars alike. In The Rebel Café (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), Stephen Duncan, assistant professor of History, flips the frame, focusing on the New York and San Francisco bars, nightclubs, and coffeehouses from which these cultural icons emerged. Duncan shows that the sexy, smoky sites of bohemian Greenwich Village and North Beach offered not just entertainment but doorways to a new sociopolitical consciousness. Ultimately, The Rebel Café provides a deeper view of 1950s America, not simply as the black-and-white precursor to the Technicolor flamboyance of the sixties but as a rich period of artistic expression and identity formation that blended cultural production and politics.
During an era when organized political representation seemed remote, the Rebel Café was a key site where battles over the definition of America were fought. In many cases, it served as a final redoubt for cultural expressions of democracy, political consciousness, and identity formation.