Reconsiderations

In writing not a few studies of literary history, I haven't said much about the new generation of the 1960s. There is a reason for the oversight. I like to write about situations that I have known at first hand, whereas from 1963 to 1973, the years when the Love Generation flowered and faded, I was a detached observer, a deaf man gardening in the country and writing about books. Of course I saw the youngsters here and there, chiefly on my travels to universities, but, while liking most of them as individuals, I could only take note of their various idealisms, not always with a receptive ear.

As a detached observer I concluded that they were indeed something new in the world, the first "real generation" –to borrow a term from Scott Fitzgerald — since the Lost Generation of the 1920s. A “real generation" is something different from a simple age group. Fitzgerald defined it as 'that reaction against the fathers which seems to occur about three times in a century. It is distinguished," he said, "by a set of ideas inherited in modified form from the madmen and the outlaws of the generation before; if it is a real generation it has its own leaders and spokesmen, and it draws into its orbit those born just before it and just after, whose ideas areless clear-cut and defiant." The youngsters of the 1960s met those requirements in a more definite fashion than did those of the 1930s or the l950s. They strenuously reacted against the fathers, in fact, against almost everyone over 30. They brought forth leaders and spokesmen, and they manifested their of sense of life, their “new-consciousness,” which drew older and younger people into its orbit.

The generation was outward-turning, “sharing,” and politicized. In spite od its praise for those who “did their own thing,” what it really enjoyed was coming together in communes, communities, encounter groups, student rebellions, and mass demonstrations, all demonstrations, all to change the world after changing the consciousness of individuals. Thus it was taking its place in a historical pattern I have often observed, an alternation of mood between interests turned outward and those focused on the individual success. Once I compared this alternation to “an immensely slow heartbeat rhythm of expansion and contraction, of systole and diastole,” and I said that the cycle might take as much as 30 years to complete. The 1950’s had been a contractive period that placed its emphasis on personal security, good form in life and literature, and the nuclear family; the 1960s were clearly expansive. In some respects they repeated the 1930s, with the same wild optimism, the same adherence to the Movement, the same faith in the Coming Revolution. The New Left had taken the place of the Old Left, and I noted with interest that several leaders of campus rebellions were the sons or daughters of old-time radicals.

In other respects the age was vastly different from the 1930s. It had, for the instance, a greater variety of ideas, ideals, and slogans, many of which were confused or conflicting, with the result that they offered an implausible mixture of Marx, Bakunin, and Mahatma Gandhi, of Wilhelm Reich and Che Guevara. What the rebels accepted from Marx was chiefly his early humanism and his revolutionary fervor. Never having lived in a depression or suffered want except from deliberate choice, they took no interest in economics. They did not talk about the proletariat, which Marx believed capable of seizing the factories and running them in everybody's best interest; instead they wanted to destroy the factories and start afresh, close to nature. They worshiped a vague entity, the People, which would rise to a man and woman (except the bankers) if rebellious students convinced them of the truth.

Much later, when reading Sara Davidson's Loose Change, which is the liveliest account of the era, I found a quotation from a speech delivered by a student leader at Berkeley. He was speaking in 1966, a hopeful year for the rebels. "We don't need the Old Left," he said. "We don't need their ideology or the working class, those mythical masses who are supposed   to rise         up and         break their chains. The working class in this country is turning to the right. Students are going to be the revolutionary force in this country. Students are going to make a revolution because we have the will!" One weakness of a revolution made by students in that its momentum is hard to maintain. There are yearly changes in the student body and after four years it has been completely refashioned. New leaders keep rising to address a new constituency,    but each           in turn will vanish into the workaday world. Those confident leaders of 1966, addressing the crowd from under a 20-foot banner that read "Happiness is Student Power"—how could they predict what students at Berkeley would be saying or doing in a very few years?

The era as whole might be divided into three shorter periods. Morris Dickstein has done this in his generally illuminating book, The Gate of Eden, but his names and dates are somewhat different from mine. First, I should say, came the years of hope from 1963 to 1966, a time of jubilant beginnings: linked arms, freedom marches, interracial solidarity, the Free Speech Movement and Berkeley, folk music (which was rather suddenly replaced rock, with Joan Baez giving way to Bob Dylan), sexual liberation (“If it feels right, do it”), and the spread of the drug culture (Turn on, tune in, and drop out”). Next came the years of confrontation, 1967-1970, which were marked by immense rallies and riots, with the inner-cities erupting in separate revolts which had nothing to do with the students, but which spread among them a mood of anger and violence. Those were the years of the March on the Pentagon, the Siege of Chicago, the Day of Rage—but they also included the Summer of Love in height-Ashbury and the East Village and the Woodstock Festival (this followed too soon by another rick festival, at Altamont that ended in disaster). More and more older people, including faculty members, were becoming involved in the Movement. It reached a climax in 1970, after the invasion of Cambodia and the Kent State massacre, when there were campus revolts and demonstrations almost everywhere in the country.

Then came a third period, the time of dispersion, 1970-1973, starting before the time of confrontation had ended. One of the popular slogans was now “back to the land!” On almost any highway, in 1970, college dropouts were moving singly or in couples, thumbs extended; they were easy to recognize by their long, unwashed hair, their faded jeans, their sleeping bags, and their boots, a sort of intersexual uniform. Some of the women had babies on their backs. Their Destination was likely to be some commune or campground or community where they would be welcomed by others of their kind—most often in northern California or New Mexico or the Ozarks or Vermont. After settling down, many of them would open little shops to sell health foods or psychedelic posters or leather goods or home-fired pottery; they were developing an economy of their own based on food stamps and small enterprises. Another manifestation of the period was the yearning for instant salvation, usually to be sought by adopting the doctrines od some sect or guru; after Zen Buddhism came Hare Krishna, Baba Ram Das, the Sufi dancers, the Moonies, and the Jesus Freaks. People in Berkeley said, “ The youth movement is turning inwards.” The public issue on which all the youngster agreed had been the Vietnam War. As this dragged on toward its last shameful days, the public movements that continued to flourish were Women s Liberation (soon to be followed by Gay Liberation) and, in its various manifestations, Black Power. Women and blacks each had biological reasons for asserting their mass identity. Others who maintained their revolutionary fervor had joined the Weathermen (or Weatherpersons) and had gone underground to lay plots for urban guerilla actions which, if carried out, would further alienate them from the People they devoutly hoped to save.

Skeptical as I was of instant salvation and hostile to urban guerillas, those crazies, I followed the last years of the youth movement with restrained interest. Much later, however, I read about those years in Loose Change, where the mood of the times is vividly suggested. Sara Davidson's plan is to follow the adventures of herself and two friends, all I964 graduates at Berkeley. Since the three women traveled widely over the country—Davidson as a journalist, "Tasha" as an art dealer, and "Susie Berman" as a committed radical (those last two names are fictitious)— one or another witnessed or took part in almost all the public manifestations of the youth movement. To me their lives become even more interesting after the shouting had died away. Susie Berman, for example, joined a hippie settlement in Taos, traveled round the world on a stolen airplane ticket, then came back to Berkeley in 1972. There she found that her neighbors were women, veterans of the Movement living alone with their small children. As she later reported to Davidson:

The culture they had built was, it turned out, a matriarchy. Where were all the men? Many of them had not been able to cut themselves loose from ideology and had gone down with the ideas. A few were in mental hospitals. Rennie Davis was following the Guru Maharaj Ji. Jerry Rubin was starting his life over with yoga. Jeff had joined the Communist Party. Marvin Garson had transported himself barefoot and penniless to Israel as an immigrant to be cared for by the state.

That is a shrewd comment on the course of the youth revolution. In the beginning almost all its paladins had been men. By 1972 the survivors were women living alone with their one or two children of the storm. Perhaps that was because simple biology forces women to be more earthy and durable; but the women, too, were now planning to marry for good or to settle down in respectable careers. They all looked back with nostalgia to the great days and wondered what had gone wrong. "All these bright, idealistic, committed people," they said, "—how could they have miscalculated so badly?" Sometimes they comforted themselves by thinking of the many changes they had accomplished in 10 years; as Sara Davidson lists those achievements of the youth movement, they were "the end of the draft; the profound revolution in sexual relationships; the granting of the right to vote to eighteen-year-olds and the right to abortion to women." She might have mentioned still other changes affecting the fabric of American society, as notably the progress of civil rights for Negroes and, on another level, the tolerance of pornography and of deviant conduct. The youth movement did not bring about those changes, which were largely owed to court decisions, but it had an undetermined share in creating the atmosphere that made them acceptable.

It had a more definite share in the continuing process of changing the spoken language. That process seldom receives as much attention as it deserves. Since we think mostly in words, our vocabularies help to shape our sense of life and hence our social ideals. During the '60s American speech was enriched—and in some ways impoverished by new words borrowed from many different sources. A principal source was the youth culture itself as it flourished on campuses and in the streets. Among many other sources were the drug culture, the gay culture (gay, itself was a new term in common speech), Yiddish (with many turns of phrase and with words such as chutzpah, goniff, schmuck), women's lib (which insisted on words of common gender, person, they instead of man. he),Eastern religions guru, dharma, mantra, satori), black slang (an always changing idiom from which the '60s borrowed some ofthe older words: jive, funky, cat, and man as a universal term of address), male obscenities (which spread from the barracks into the living room), and finally the dreadful jargons of bureaucrats, educationists, and sociologists.

Words from the drug culture were, among others, trip, high, downers, joint, speed, acid ("dropping acid"), stoned, freak out, and psychedelic. From the youth culture in a broader sense came uptight, putdown, dropout, ripoff, withit, into (for "mad about"), kooky, off as a verb ("Off the pigs!) and dozens of other compounds and words from Basic English twisted into new meanings. By devious paths most of the words have made their way into the written language. Some have already lost favor, either from being used too often or with the disappearance of the situations that gave rise to them, while others have become a permanent resource of American English. There should be a glossary of all the words, with derivations and connotations in it.

And what about American literature, my own field? Here, even as a detached observer, I cannot avoid a feeling of disappointment. After so many adventures and misadventures, so much shared emotion, the Love Generation of the 1960s has still produced no monuments of the literary art. Important work was published during the years when the generation flourished, but the work was done by others. Dickstein says in Gates of Eden that the ‘60s “are as likely to be remembered through novels as through anything else the left behind.” The novels he eulogizes are Catch-22, The Sot-Weed Factor, V, and Slaughterhouse-Five, by, respectively Joseph Heller, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, and Kurt Vonnegut; these authors, he says, expressed the new sensibility of the decade. He has more restrained praise for the experimental work of Donald Barthelme, William H. Gass, Robert Coover, and other practitioners of metafiction and the antistory. He says that their underground prose, as it might be called, with its alienation from the broader public, offers an exact parallel to the guerilla tactics of the Weather Underground. At this point he is making the common error of confusing two age groups. Not one of the authors he praises—not even Pynchon, born in 1937, who is by far the youngest—is a member of the Love Generation. Not one ofthem took part in its political activities. All are older men, veterans of the 1950s, who belong to the straight world, and it would be easy to demonstrate that what they expressed, if in a dissident form, was the sensibility of that otherr era.

The actual leaders and spokesmen of the Love Generation were not men or women of letters. Some of them had renounced literature in order to remake the world and their own lives. They expressed themselves eloquently, at times, but usually in speeches or manifestos or articles hastily written for various organs of the counterculture. They had no time to dream of writing masterpieces—until 1971, that is, and afterward most of them were too discouraged to write at all. In literature too, most of the survivors were women. Joan Didion being a little older, I should guess that in fiction Anne Tyler and Joyce Carol Oates are the clearest voices of the generation. Sara Davidson has been its liveliest historian.


This article originally ran in the August 20, 1977 issue of the magazine.