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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 the year in which Bernard Malamud began publishing the stories that were eventually collected in The Magic Barrel.” Because these stories contain “no trace of politics of any sort,” we are apparently meant to conclude that Malamud was compelled by “the narrow and repressive political atmosphere of the fifties” to muzzle himself. Similarly, we read that “within a year after [C. Wright Mills] wrote…’Culture and Politics,’ [he] was emboldened by the first signs of a New Left awakening in many countries, for 1960 was a year of worldwide student outbreaks.”

So much for historical background. Dickstein conceives of the past as a neat series of ten-year units, and is especially fond of 1960. He does not mention earlier “first signs of a New Left awakening,” such as the formation of SLATE at Berkeley in 1957, the large student power demonstration at Cornell in 1958, or Bayard Rustin’s huge desegregation marches in Washington in 1958 and 1959. Perhaps Dickstein ignores such events because he believes that the Fifties were colorless, moribund, thoroughly inhibited, and then the “romantic” Sixties suddenly exploded in reaction, a national be-in centered in New York. This version of the past is based primarily on Dickstein’s impressions. Rather than examine the vast detritus of the Fifties, he depends on his memories of “what life felt like for those who were there,” assuming that we will hear America singing as we read his reminiscences. So personal a method would be legitimate if Dickstein had restricted his discussion to his own milieu. But he speaks authoritatively about the entire nation: the “substance” of the Fifties’ “Old Regime” “was the increasingly decayed and irrelevant traditions of rural or small-town America.” As Dickstein claims to speak from experience, we have a right to know what he means by “those who were there.” By his own account, he went straight from his home in New York to Columbia University, “which became as much a home as the home I had left.” But from this experience he derogates the many hicks and halfwits of “rural or small-town America” as if he had observed their rude customs at first hand.

According to Francis Parkman, the historian “must seek to imbue himself with the life or spirit of the time.” The subjective historian who writes about his own age is able to do just this. Rather than take so difficult a step, Dickstein attempts to support his impressions with a snippet of cultural criticism. “The Jewish novel of the 1950s” (i.e., Bellow and Malamud) is “ruminative, private, morally austere and self-conscious, apolitical.” Therefore, the Fifties were also private, austere, and apolitical, because “the literature and politics of the age are one.”

The Fifties, then, “were a great age for home and family, for getting and spending, for cultivating one’s garden.” However, this superficial contentment is pervaded by “a quiet despair,” symbolized by “the Bomb and the still vivid death camps.” (This diagnosis may have little to do with “what life felt like,” since it is a virtual paraphrase of the first sentence of Norman Mailer’s essay “The White Negro.”)

There is some truth to the notion that the Fifties were stultifying and repressive; the young tended to be apathetic, and what dissidence there was seemed illegitimate. But Dickstein’s characterization is far too parochial, for there were many different responses to the Fifties’ atmosphere. His terms, for example, are hard to apply to those writers whose anxieties are not specifically Jewish: the memory of “the still vivid death camps” does not darken the pages of those works written in the Fifties by, say, Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, or William Faulkner, whose Nobel Prize acceptance speech of 1950 explicitly denied that Armageddon was at hand. If the writing of that decade, moreover, includes Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953) and A View from the Bridge (1955), Lewis Mumford’s In the Name of Sanity (1954), Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), I.F. Stone’s Weekly (begun in 1953), Irving Howe’s Dissent (begun in 1954), and Gore Vidal’s Visit to a Small Planet (1955), then it cannot be dismissed as “apolitical.”

Dickstein finds the political atmosphere of the Sixties so appealing that he assigns it many political works of the Fifties. “In a sense,” he writes, “all three of [Mailer’s] early books were political novels,” two of which were written in the Fifties, as were the works of C. Wright Mills, Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death, Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization, Richard Chase’s The Democratic Vista, Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd, and the literature of the Beats. Dickstein claims these works for the Sixties, “singling out the minor theme that will become major.” He fails to realize that they were very much the products of their own time; such provocative essays in social analysis could only have been written in an adversary spirit, in poignant opposition to the lockstep “progress” of the age. (By “politics” Dickstein seems to mean left-liberal dissidence, which disqualifies the anticommunism of the period as “political” sentiment. His partisan account must therefore exclude such works as John Dos Passos’s diatribe in Most Likely to Succeed [1954] and E.E. Cummings’s “THANKS-GIVING [1956].”)

A quick look at some nonliterary phenomena might have persuaded Dickstein to stop leaning on the so-called “Jewish novel.” Mort Sahl began his career as a political satirist in 1953, and Lenny Bruce began developing his own kind of satire five years later. In the Fifties dozens of ingenious antifascist films, such as High Noon (1952), The Wild One (1954), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), came out of Hollywood, whose community included some outspoken critics of HUAC. It was also in the Fifties that thousands of Americans discovered rock’n’roll, which, if “apolitical,” was hardly “austere,” causing a lot of sober Moms and Dads no end of nondenominational anxiety.

These various responses to the Fifties’ stifling atmosphere remind us that resistance, denied open expression, will frequently find oblique release. It is up to the cultural historian, who can discern subtle manifestations of the national mood, to discover and interpret such indirect protests. Dickstein’s assessment of the Fifties is too rigid to allow the consideration of such phenomena, and also prevents a fair appraisal of the liberal and radical positions of the period. Dickstein accuses Sidney Hook, Robert Warshow, Mary McCarthy, Irving Kristol, Elia Kazan, and Leslie Fiedler of moral cowardice in the face of McCarthyism, for “hindsight will not fail to connect their opinions with certain gross actualities of the time.” By way of example, Dickstein condemns Mary McCarthy for writing The Groves of Academe, “a novel about a faculty Machiavel who tries to save his job by posing as a victim of political persecution.” These are crude grounds for a charge of complicity. That novel evinces real sympathy for genuine victims of red baiting; and if Dickstein does not find that novel explicit enough, then perhaps he ought to read McCarthy’s essays in On the Contrary (particularly “No News, or What Killed the Dog” and “The Contagion of Ideas,” both written in 1952) before including her name in a list of political sinners.

After the Fifties’ universal corruption, “the new sensibility of the Sixties was unusually pervasive…it touched every corner of our culture, any one of which, examined closely, helps illuminate the general ferment, the movement of change.” The phrase “our culture” provides us with an instance of the royal plural. Although there were some anomalous non-New Yorkers who evinced this “new sensibility,” Dickstein can hardly believe it. For instance, he mentions Robert Bly’s antiwar poetry and illogically deems it “remarkable that a poet from Minnesota, populistically mistrustful of New York intellectuals,…should have brought politics back into poetry, where Partisan Review and the New Criticism had so long insisted it could not tread.”

Dickstein locates in his undergraduate readings of Goodman, Marcuse, et al. at Columbia “the immediate intellectual underpinnings of the sixties.” Not content to describe these works of social analysis as proleptic or prophetic discourses, he asserts that they actually inspired “an amorphous mass spread out across thousands of colleges and communes” in the Sixties. He admits “that few kids became radicals, hippies, or freaks in the sixties from reading Eros and Civilization or Growing Up Absurd,” but then goes on “to single out Marcuse, Goodman, and Brown as the theorists whose work had the greatest impact on the new culture of the sixties,” arguing that those “whose culture enshrined music and films and drugs more than books…adopted certain books that rationalized their discontent and gave it a structure.”

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