What Happened in the Sixties?

The wild and bloody Sixties are at peace, for Morris Dickstein has revised them. Gates of Eden subdues that decade’s fierce character, purporting to discuss “American culture in the Sixties” by concentrating on its literature: Dickstein, professor of English at Queens College, “can’t see any evidence for the notion popularized by McLuhan that books have been displaced,” and has written convincingly to prove it.

Dickstein’s method is “to develop analogies between social changes and changes in the forms of the arts, especially the novel. Form can be seen as a structure of perception, a deep-seated rhythm of experience and sensibility.” Whatever this means, it seems that Dickstein wants to relate a few of his favorite writers to the “cultural climate” that presumably fostered them. He treats “art” and “politics” as pure and self-contained entities that respond alike to large, vague changes in the “culture,” a term which, like “form,” Dickstein chooses to italicize rather than define: “I’ve chosen to exploit the ambiguity of that slippery word culture, which we apply both to the narrower realm of thought and art and, in the anthropological sense, to the tissue of assumptions and mores of a whole society.”

“The narrower realm of thought and art” and “a whole society” refer largely to New York, or rather, to Columbia University, because that is where Dickstein has spent most of his time. But he has no qualms about extending his limited observations from coast to coast, for “the culture of an age is a unified thing, whatever its different strands and apparent contradictions. Touch it anywhere and it can reveal its secrets: the texture exposed, the part betrays the whole.” This synecdochic conception of history is convenient, if fallacious, in that it allows Dickstein to ignore the many “cultural phenomena for which I felt little affinity.”

Because the recent past is scarcely less confusing than the present, a book such as Dickstein’s ought to be especially inclusive and precise. We have all been watching the evening news for some time, and therefore have some vague idea of what went on ten years ago. The cultural historian must clarify our blurry image of the world, not only tell us who it was who marched or tripped or rioted, but try to tell us why. Moreover, the student has innumerable books, magazines, newspapers, films, videotapes, and record albums (as well as the recollections of survivors) at his disposal; even if his life has been sheltered, he can evoke the moods of yesterday easily enough. However, Dickstein is not only unsure of his terms (he uses “culture” indiscriminately to refer to things as diverse as “Zeitgeist,” “world-view,” and “movement”), but his notion of what happened in the Sixties is no better informed than the average television viewer’s.

Gates of Eden exploits the suggestiveness of contemporaneous events, a method which fanatics of every stripe have used for centuries to confirm their wildest suspicions. We read that Senator Joseph McCarthy began waving sinister lists in 1950, which “was also…

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