We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
The ’60s: that magical mystery decade when America’s previously well-behaved young people suddenly broke out in peace symbols and grokked one another at love-ins and be-ins and even local drive-ins, or went to San Francisco to wear flowers in their hair or to Woodstock to frolic stoned and naked in the mud, and sisters and brothers, haven’t you heard? Dope Is Freedom and Hair Is Revolution and
Did somebody say, “Shut it, hippie”?
Geesh. And I was just getting started. I get nostalgic for those days when it seemed as if the Furry Freak Brothers would save the world, even if I was only 8 years old during the Summer of Love and 11 when the decade came to an end. But that’s the thing about the ’60sthey belong to everybody. You didn’t have to be there; indeed, it’s as the wag says: “If you can remember the ’60s, you weren’t there.” I got my ’60s from dark glimpses of body bags in Life and from my older brother’s record collection, not to mention lots of fanatical reading as a teenager; you most likely got yours somewhere else. The point is that the decade’s a blank screen against which we project our own idealism or cynicismone person’s “Imagine” is another person’s Altamont.
And that brings us to Ann Charters’ The Portable Sixties Reader. The booka compendium of works written about, but not necessarily during, that decadeis a companion to Charters’ earlier The Portable Beat Reader and The Portable Jack Kerouac Reader. I picked up the anthology hoping to revisit my ’60s, but, lo and behold, they’re nowhere to be found. Where are the Weathermen, the Stonewall riots, Easy Rider, Jim Morrison’s dark prophecies, SDS, Andy Warhol’s Factory and the Velvet Underground, Dylan saying screw protest and going electric, Lee Harvey Oswald, the Manson Family, dope, guns, and fucking in the streetswhere is that electric undercurrent of acid paranoia that runs through Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Ed Sanders’ The Family, and Joan Didion’s The White Album, not to mention the White Album itself?
For Charters, the ’60s were a decade of undiluted optimisma period during which disparate movements (civil-rights, feminist, environmentalist, anti-war) “helped to bring about constructive social change through the moral courage and imagination of its writers and artists.” She describes the anthology as “an attempt to convey the spirit of the Sixties in the United States as I experienced it,” and there’s no arguing with that. But for Charters’ sunny view of the ’60s as an arc of moral progressone in which various hairy Aquarians stuck flowers in gun barrels and thereby midwived a New Age of Human Consciousnessyou can very plausibly substitute a more pessimistic visionone in which a generation’s utopian dreams were snuffed out at the Altamont Speedway and the Polanski-Tate residence on Cielo Drivesite of the most notorious Manson Family killingsin sunny Los Angeles. One in which the end of the ’60s ushered in not the Age of Aquarius, but Helter Skelter. It’s not a question of one or the other’s being the “real history” of the ’60s. It’s merely a question of balance.
Charters’ anthology starts well; the opening section, on the civil-rights struggle, features essays by James Baldwin and Malcolm X, as well as Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” which remains one of the greatest declarations of human dignity ever written, and a portion of Anne Moody’s stirring Coming of Age in Mississippi, in which she graphically describes the humiliations meted out to civil-rights protesters in a Southern jail. It also includes Eudora Welty’s creepily effective short story “Where Is the Voice Coming From?,” which puts you inside the murderous head of a Mississippi racist. The second section, on the anti-war movement, includes such great poems as (pre-Iron John) Robert Bly’s surrealistic rant “The Teeth Mother Naked at Last” (“As soon as the President finishes his press conference, black wings carry off the words,/Bits of flesh still clinging to them”) and Denise Levertov’s “Life at War,” as well as selections from Ron Kovic’s bitter memoir, Born on the Fourth of July, and Michael Herr’s Dispatches, which is without doubt the best book ever written about the Vietnam War.
Unfortunately, things go downhill in the section on the free-speech movement. Andrew Gordon’s “Smoking Dope With Thomas Pynchon: A Sixties Memoir” is mildly interesting if you’re a Pynchon fan but has nothing to do with free speech. Abbie Hoffman’s “Che’s Last Letter,” in which the titular hero exhorts, “[Y]ou the children of the Yankees must lend a hand. You must vomit forth your cynicism in the streets of your cities,” makes me want to vomit, all rightbut on Abbie, for that “children of the Yankees” schtick. As for the various free-speech “talking blues” by the long-forgotten likes of Lee Felsenstein, Dan Paik, and Richard Kampf, let’s just say they haven’t aged well. Lyrics like “Hey, Mister Newsman, how come you’re taking pictures of me? (2x)/Is it ’cause of my long hair/Or ’cause of my boots up to my knees?” (from Kampf’s “Hey Mr. Newsman”) may have fired ’em up at the Battle of Berkeley, but they’re grimace-inducing now, and as dated as Mr. Long Hair’s suede waders.
And if these far-from-timeless works provoke yawns, Allen Ginsberg’s “Demonstration or Spectacle as Example, as Communicationor How to Make a March/Spectacle” simply leaves me speechless. Ginsberg’s suggestions for reducing “heavy anxiety, confusion or struggle” (have marchers engage in mass calisthenics or recite “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in unison) and placating enraged Hell’s Angels and cops (offer them a candy bar or a “little paper halo”) sound just plain suicidal. No wonder subsequent generations of protesters took to wearing motorcycle helmets. (Mass recitals of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” tend to make cops do bad things.)
But if the free-speech section is weak, the section on the counterculture is downright enervated. I’m as fond of Country Joe McDonald as the next guy, but why Charters sees fit to throw in four of his songsas opposed to only one in the whole book (the protest-era “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”) by Bob Dylan, whose impact on the counterculture was 9 million times that of McDonald’sis beyond me. And if she had to include McDonald’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’-to-Die Rag” and his anti-LBJ screed “Superbird,” wouldn’t they have been better placed in the anti-war section? Then there’s Douglas Blazek’s coma-inducing “THE little PHENOMENA,” wherein he describes the contents of a bunch of long-forgotten little late-’60s magazines (with titles such as ENTRAILS and HORSESHIT) to no good end, most of the writers (bearing such names as Jesus Christ and Norse) having long faded, like Wavy Gravy’s tie-dyes. Sally Tomlinson’s “Psychedelic Rock Posters: History, Ideas, and Art” is much ado about nothing, proffering as it does the not-so-hard-to-believe thesis that psychedelic posters were hard to read because zonked-out hippies had nothing better to do than decipher hard-to-read posters. As for R.G. Davis’ discussion of the nontraditional theater’s role in challenging racial stereotypes (“A Minstrel Show Or: Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel”), it conveys the honest grappling with race issues that went on among the earnest liberals of the day, but it’s such tedious readingthe play sounds dull, and Davis is a pedantand so smug in tone that I can’t imagine anyone but a hard-core theater junkie wanting to read it.
And so it goes: The section on drugs includes too many shamans for my taste; the section on the Beat Generation writers just seems like beating a dead horse. The section on the women’s movement and the sexual revolution is well-chosen, if uninspired; Betty Friedan, Kate Millett, and Gloria Steinem all make appearances, as does Valerie Solanas, the woman who wrote the SCUM Manifesto and shot Andy Warhol. Charters includes some good poetry, tooI especially love Anne Sexton’s “The Addict” (wherein she describes addiction as “a kind of war/where I plant bombs inside/of myself”). But where, in God’s name, is the writing on gays and lesbians? Or the sex, for that matter? Charters’ sexual revolution seems to have encompassed only straight women, and her vision of the ’60s doesn’t include John Rechy’s seminal City of Night.
If Charters’ book leans too far toward the sunny, it includes at least one naysayer in the person of Susan Sontag, whose barbed “What’s Happening in America (1966)” presents as pessimistic an appraisal of these United States as you’re ever likely to read and shows that Sontag’s ability to catapult the conservative classes into apoplexy long predates Sept. 11, 2001. In this response to a questionnaire sent out by the Partisan Review, Sontag disparages America’s tendency to sublimate its “energy of violence” into “benighted moral crusades” and says its “hegemony menaces the lives…of countless millions.” She then goes on to sayand this was 1966, rememberthat “the chief restraint on American bellicosity and paranoia…lies in the fatigue and depoliticization of Western Europe” as well as a “lively fear of America.” She says, “It’s hard to lead a holy war without allies. But America is just crazy enough to try to do it.”
Damn right we are. And the fact that Sontag’s message resonates so loudly 37 years later ought to be enough to make one wonder about Charters’ faith in “constructive social change.” Sure, significant progress has been made in the areas of rights for women and minorities, though much remains to be done. But the culture wars, and America’s love affair with death, go on unabated. And here in the United States of America, in the year 2003, Helter Skelter is still coming down, only for real this time. Charters’ peace-and-love-centric anthology has its place. But a healthy leavening of fear and loathing would probably give us a better idea of why we’reto quote those ’60s doubters, the Bandin the shape we’re in. CP