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Stephen R. Duncan

The Rebel Café

Sex, Race, and Politics in Cold War America’s Nightclub Underground

Johns Hopkins University Press 2018

New Books in African American StudiesNew Books in American StudiesNew Books in Arts & LettersNew Books in HistoryNew Books in MusicNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in Popular CultureNew Books Network June 24, 2019 Stephen Colbrook

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...

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: Sex, Race, and Politics in Cold War America’s Nightclub Underground (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), Stephen R. Duncan 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.

This book is a collective biography of the places that harbored beatniks, blabbermouths, hipsters, playboys, and partisans who altered the shape of postwar liberal politics and culture. Throughout this period, Duncan argues, nightspots were crucial―albeit informal―institutions of the American democratic public sphere. Amid the Red Scare’s repressive politics, the urban underground of New York and San Francisco acted as both a fallout shelter for left-wingers and a laboratory for social experimentation.

Touching on literary figures from Norman Mailer and Amiri Baraka to Susan Sontag as well as performers ranging from Dave Brubeck to Maya Angelou to Lenny Bruce, The Rebel Café profiles hot spots such as the Village Vanguard, the hungry i, the Black Cat Cafe, and the White Horse Tavern. Ultimately, the book 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.


Stephen Colbrook is a graduate student at the University College London, where he is researching a dissertation on the interaction between HIV/AIDS and state policy-making. This work will focus on the political and policy-making side of the epidemic and aims to compare the different contexts of individual states, such as California, Florida, and New Jersey. Stephen can be contacted at stephencolbrook@gmail.com.