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“A&P” was published in 1961 and is an early version of what would become the defining narrative of the 1960s in popular mythology—the youthful rebels taking on the soulless system. The story includes the key elements of the myth, including the backdrop of postwar prosperity and the attendant consumer culture, a hint of the Cold War (Sammy imagines the Russians controlling the A&P in 1990), and the requisite opposition of youth and authority in the confrontation between Sammy, the girls, and Lengel. An important indicator of the seismic social upheavals of the 1960s that lay ahead is the story’s focus on the inappropriate dress of the girls. The ultimate symbol of the generational conflict of the 1960s was the contrast between long-haired, freewheeling hippies and their parents in traditional suits and dresses. The immodesty of the girls walking around the A&P in revealing bathing suits is a harbinger of the many confrontations over public decency that would come in the ensuing decade.
Sammy seems already to be on the side of those who favor the “natural” approach over the “uptight” buttoned-down style of the older generation, although what he really wants from life is still defined mostly in terms of what he doesn’t want: he doesn’t want to be stuck at the A&P like Stokesie, he doesn’t want to be buttoned up like Lengel, and he doesn’t want the kind of life his parents have. The vague desires he does have seem to be mirrored in the brazen, scantily clad girls. This sort of conflict between the “establishment” and the “rebels” would soon become a favorite Hollywood device, recycled endlessly from Easy Rider to American Beauty. In the case of “A&P,” the ultimate result of Sammy’s act of defiance is not some glorious liberation but only a young man at loose ends, struggling to redefine himself just as the country faced its own changing identity in the 1960s.