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  and E.E. Cummings’s “THANKS-GIVING .”)
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.”
Whose reading list does Dickstein think he has assembled? Those “whose culture enshrined music and films and drugs” were more interested in assuaging their discontent than rationalizing it, and were not likely to get much of a kick out of Marcusean dialectics or neo-Freudian polemics. The phrase “thousands of colleges and communes” is misleading. Paul Goodman had a considerable academic audience among the student activists of the early Sixties, but Growing Up Absurd was not very popular with the communards, who generally preferred books like the I Ching or Stranger in a Strange Land. The student radicals of the later Sixties either ignored Goodman’s work in favor of more strident social analysis—as Goodman himself noted—or, more frequently, read nothing at all. Dickstein’s phrase also leaves out of account the suburbs’ adolescent Bohemians, whose emergence coincided with the release of A Hard Day’s Night and depended on clandestine Baggies of marijuana.
Gates of Eden obscures the fact that the Sixties’ upheavals began with the young, not with the New York intelligentsia; and since those young people were not great readers, Dickstein’s notion of a basic countercultural bibliography is highly improbable. Whether they expressed their disaffection by joining communes, staying high, or fighting the police, the Sixties’ young were responding to a common disappointment which had little to do with their reading what Dickstein calls “the founding books of the new sensibility,” even if those books explored some of the reasons for their discontent.
Dickstein casts the struggles of the Sixties in Manichaean terms: all that was good rose up in the Sixties to do battle with all that was bad (i.e., the Fifties). There was “one of those deep-seated shifts of sensibility that alters the whole moral terrain.” All of a sudden, “the spirit of the sixties witnessed the transformation of utopian religion into the terms of secular humanism.” But in reality many of the similarities between young and old proved stronger than the differences; the continuity of the Fifties with the Sixties was as significant as any apparent disjunction. This helps to explain not only why the young rebelled, but why their rebellion ultimately failed.
The generation that came of age in the 1960s was the first to have been raised in the gray light of television, which generally represented American society as a droll patriarchy. Father Knows Best taught the questionable lesson of its title, as did many other shows, dramatizing that national contempt for the young which was Paul Goodman’s subject. If children (or women) acted without first consulting Dad, the results were invariably disastrous, humiliating, and supposedly hilarious. This was the premise of Leave It to Beaver, The Patty Duke Show, My Three Sons, and many other programs deemed “suitable for children.” Meanwhile television’s “serious” shows supplemented the indoctrination that took place in the public schools, teaching that America was a land with a history of freedom and fair play (Death Valley Days, Zane Grey Theater, Bonanza), where our friend the policeman was grimly heroic (Highway Patrol, Dragnet), the rich were benevolent (The Millionare), and justice was available to all (Perry Mason, The Defenders). Television enjoined American children to see themselves as the inferior citizens of an irreproachable nation.
At the same time, however, their favor was greedily pursued by advertisers. The children born in the Forties were now spending the pennies which their elders had amassed since the Depression. New radio stations sprang up to attract this wealth, and the TV shows that demonstrated the laughable incompetence of kids were interrupted every twelve minutes by commercials exploiting the kids’ “needs.” Children were not being taken seriously, but they were surely being taken; with their numbers and pocket money growing, the young were becoming economically powerful. The burgeoning “youth market” of the late Fifties provided the young with a nascent group identity, the prototype of the Sixties’ “youth culture.”
What Dickstein calls the Sixties’ “deep-seated shift of sensibility” evolved from a shift of population. Gathered around the campuses, the huge new community of middle-class young began to test the authority of parents, policemen, and the government; the official version of the world started to disintegrate. Many of the young perceived the disjunction between American ideals and American practice, between the teachings of television, comic books, and grade school, and the facts of Southern racism, “liberal” foreign policy, and universities that catered to an expanding technocracy. Their disappointment was severe.
Unfortunately, there has never been a mass movement inspired exclusively by altruism. Their own ardor having been discredited or ignored, the young identified with others not taken seriously by the Establishment, poor blacks and whites, and the struggling Vietnamese. As the war in Vietnam intensified, however, the lines of battle became clearer. When Lyndon Johnson had protesters beaten and expanded the draft call, many of the young fought back.
Although they later challenged what had come before them and inverted the old lessons (“Father knows least, and the policeman is my enemy”), the young never lost the essence of their early instruction: their idealism was partly the result of the bald optimism and simple moral code which were disingenuously purveyed in the Fifties. Theirs was not a literary morality, but something more easily adopted: “I realize that my conception of the philosophy of law comes not so much from Rousseau as from Fess Parker as Davy Crockett,” wrote James Simon Kunen, only half-kiddingly, in The Strawberry Statement.
Despite the hippies’ pastoral rhetoric (“Back to earth!”), and despite the radicals’ Luddite ambitions, the youth culture depended on technology. The familiar symbols and catch-phrases of the young gained currency through radio and television, through films like Easy Rider and 2001: A Space Odyssey, at brilliantly engineered rock concerts. Sgt. Pepper, the counterculture’s main accompanist, was born of a multimillion-dollar industry, and made famous by mass production. The psychedelic fantasy of universal, instantaneous communication, of every head utterly attuned to every other head, was the apotheosis of the television audience. Television persisted in stirring discontent throughout the Sixties. “The tremors of the sixties, which shook institutions in so many remote corners of society, were generated from society’s own deep core,” Dickstein tautologically declares, without realizing what those “tremors” were generated by, or what it was that could reach “so many remote corners of society.”
In 1963, when the networks expanded the news to the half-hour format, more people began to watch the news than read it. Television brought the government’s atrocities into every home with appalling immediacy; its inadvertent montage betrayed the callousness of the Establishment. We would see children burned by American napalm, then see a press secretary try to contain the horror with complacent euphemisms, then see some lumbering glutton mollify his protesting gut with Alka-Seltzer. While this may have reduced the carnage in Asia to part of the evening’s entertainment for many, it also confirmed the suspicions of the increasingly militant young. “To be a yippie you got to watch color television at least two hours a day, especially the news,” wrote Jerry Rubin.
As the youth culture was dependent on technology, so did it depend on the general surplus of money. Despite their vociferous rejection of Mammon, the urban hippies, and the fellow trippers who established enclaves in every college town, relied on the availability of ready cash. Living on alms from tourists or money from home, they sped from city to city in a haze of electrified music. The would-be hippies of the suburbs bought hashish with their allowance, and many college students decided that failing to earn a diploma would not break them.
But the complicity between old and young, “the people” and “the pigs,” was more than a financial matter. In the late Sixties, when “the Movement” had come to include trippers and trashers, guerrilla theater troupes would roam the campuses, behaving with ostentatious bad taste: “America eats shit!” they would exult, performing allegorical dramas meant to “liberate” their undergraduate viewers. If these performers had been truly “liberated,” would they have found their own antics quite so shocking? They wanted to subvert their own sense of decorum, eager to exorcise the parents within. They worked at being bad and lewd, until that behavior, like shoulder-length hair or reefers on the public streets, ceased to be disturbing. Deep in their hearts, Jerry Rubin and Richard Nixon shared many of the same prim standards of deportment.
Paul Goodman pointed out in Growing Up Absurd that the rebels of the Fifties, the Beats and the juvenile delinquents, were unconsciously acting in accord with the Establishment. There was a similar parity of impulse in the Sixties. The alternatives to straight society were generally as expansionist as any organ of the status quo. The objectives of the “Space Age” were reflected in the dreams of the acid-head, and the middle-class ideal of plentiful leisure was briefly fulfilled at Woodstock. The inflexibilities of the traditional family recurred in bizarre new circumstances, often more stifling than the old ones. The survivors of the Manson family, of Mel Lyman’s commune, or of such post-Sixties manifestations as the Unification Church or the SLA, have described communal society as a grim patriarchy. Even at its most flamboyant, much of the dissidence of the Sixties was determined by the circumstances which it sought to oppose.
This is partly why the youth culture lost its energy. Its unsettling symbols had little staying power (especially after US troops left Vietnam) and were not so distasteful that the Establishment could not assimilate them. The revolutionary has been stereotyped by Hollywood, and, in television commercials, hip-looking blacks cavort through paradise, brought to you by Coca-Cola or MacDonald’s. Sales depend on the successful projection of images that the young consumer will look upon as groovy.
This is not to say that the protests of the Sixties were inconsequential, but rather that they did not cut deep enough: the major problems of the Fifties are still with us, and the Sixties’ zeal for betterment has gone the way of all flash, having dwindled into the activities of sober Naderites, ecologists, and careful lawyers. With the war over, the draft repealed, circumstances straitened, and lots of blacks in television commercials, most of the young have given up radical politics; they may be more pessimistic and skeptical than the young of the Fifties, but they are not much more politically inclined. If social improvement and political overhaul depend on rousing the young against the old, then we are surely lost. The cities are dying, the air and water are filthy, the corporations ride the economy, and we are no further from nuclear annihilation than we ever were.
Dickstein cherishes the old Us-against-Them dynamic, having arranged it conveniently into decades. This partisan arrangement obscures the problems still facing us, implying that the mere fact of the Sixties having happened as they did is enough to make life grand. Dickstein seems to suggest that the cold war stopped and the Bomb went away because the Fifties are over. There was, we read, “a gradual dismantling of the cold war” in the late Fifties, and “when the Russians launched their Sputnik satellite in 1957 our competitive furies found a new peaceful channel.”
The cold war having been “dismantled,” how, we might ask, did the Vietnam war ever come to pass? Well, “by 1966 it was clear that the activist spirit [i.e., “a hopeful, activist glow” that Kennedy gave off] had fallen into the hands of malevolent demons, determined to establish their masculinity at others’ expense.” The Vietnam war apparently had nothing to do with Kennedy or with the political and economic currents of the last thirty years. This is Dickstein’s analysis, and as extreme a rendering of “Them” as any Yippie might have devised, yet it exonerates the political system.
Exacerbated by the war, the polarization of Us-against-Them often made the Sixties dangerous, promoting ignorant antagonism, feeding the paranoid dreams of “heads” and “pigs” alike. Gates of Eden minimizes the grimness of those conflicts, tailoring the “new culture” to leave out nearly everything that Dickstein could not stomach or explicate.
Dickstein says only enough about television to suggest that it, like everything else, suddenly changed in the Sixties, inspired by literary developments. The news became bolder because “a new spirit took hold” among some writing journalists: “Under pressure from both the New Journalism and the critical urgencies of the age, even above-ground reporters found circuitous ways of doing their own thing. Dan Rather became famous for the loathing he inspired in Richard Nixon as the CBS White House correspondent.”
If anyone inspired Dan Rather to practice adversary journalism, it was not Hunter Thompson or Norman Mailer, but Edward R. Murrow, who is still revered in the CBS newsroom: “Murrow is the patron saint of journalism and a force for good around here,” Rather has said. Murrow’s See It Now programs of 1954 were clearly biased against McCarthy, making a major issue of “objectivity” in television journalism. Yet Dickstein claims that Murrow “caused a sensation simply by dealing with certain subjects—McCarthy, migrant farm labor—albeit in an objective manner and outside the framework of ‘the news.’ ” Dickstein seems to believe that television remained a tool of the State until Dan Rather read The Armies of the Night.
Dickstein engages in more futile source-hunting in his chapter on rock, one of his few concessions to nonliterary culture. He cites rock’s “forebears in the heyday of modernism and surrealism,” compares Dylan’s “snarl and whine and drawl” to the artlessness of the Lyrical Ballads, and reports that “the audience at a rock concert sometimes longed to assault or devour the performers” just as “the first auditors of The Rite of Spring accurately responded to Stravinsky’s violence by rioting.” Stravinsky’s audience rioted because they were offended, not exhilarated; and however angry they might have been, they certainly did not want to eat Stravinsky.
Despite the obvious hardships of having to mingle with an audience of cannibals, Dickstein developed an affection for the Beatles as deep and touching as a plantation-owner’s fondness for his slaves. He refers to them as “the boys,” and mentions their “irrepressibly childlike qualities” and “incurable addiction to the pleasure principle,” probably not bothering to bring up their “natural sense of rhythm” because we’re already familiar with it. Dickstein is a little less condescending to Bob Dylan, whose “work is rooted in the famous insecurity we find in the heroes of Jewish novels or in self-denigrating Jewish comics like Woody Allen.” However, as Dickstein is unable to invent literary origins for the Beatles, he projects them as a band of goyishe pixies, warbling their native wood-notes wild.
Dickstein believes that Tom Wolfe has misinterpreted the “new culture” because he has “no feel for what Trilling calls ‘a culture’s hum and buzz of implication’: ‘a dim mental region of intention’ that underlies a culture and shapes its character at a given historical moment. This is the implicit unity of mood or moral temper that the cultural observer must seek out,” and which, we infer, Dickstein has been trying to find. But his search is a fruitless one, because Trilling’s point in “Manners, Morals, and the Novel” is exactly the opposite of Dickstein’s. “A culture’s hum and buzz of implication” is what Trilling means by “manners,” and “in any complex culture there is not a single system of manners but a complex variety of manners and…one of the jobs of a culture is the adjustment of this conflict.” Dickstein’s “implicit unity of mood or moral temper” (are they synonymous?) is mere rhetoric, and a distortion of Trilling’s subtle dialectical conception of culture. “The right way to begin with such a subject,” Trilling writes, “is to gather together as much of its detail as we possibly can.”
This means that we cannot dismiss, as Dickstein does, the Sixties’ “blissed-out side: the fascination with the occult, the attraction to Eastern gurus and meditative practices, the short-lived Nirvanas that come by way of drugs, polymorphous sexuality, or quickie therapies”; for the “political” and the “blissed-out” sides could not always be distinguished. The inextricable visionary quality of the Sixties’ political movements had much to do with the psychedelic experience, which many of the young perceived as an antidote to the alcoholism of the straight world. In a repressed and repressive society of generals and businessmen, fantasy itself seemed dissident. Herein lay the significance of Allen Ginsberg’s testimony at the Chicago Seven’s conspiracy trial, of Timothy Leary’s escaping prison with the assistance of the Weathermen, of William Buckley’s fears that radicals would spike the public reservoirs with LSD. The “blissed-out” and reformist impulses are inseparable in Hunter Thompson’s articles, the Jefferson Airplane’s late albums, the Who’s Tommy, the Yippie movement, and Bob Dylan’s “Gates of Eden.”
By not dealing with the Sixties’ intractable lunacy, Dickstein creates an age of calm whose texts he can explicate without trouble. He tells us that the Sixties’ young people “were looking for something in literature,” then proceeds not to look for it himself. He ignores most of the writers whom those young people liked: Hesse, Tolkien, Huxley, Richard Brautigan, Carlos Castaneda, Timothy Leary, and Alan Watts are never mentioned, although Dickstein does pause to call Ken Kesey “offensive.” He bowdlerizes “black culture” as serenely as he disinfects the “new culture.” He imposes a separate-but-equal status on black literature, for “black writing has its own internal history.” By studying black writers exclusively he hopes to illuminate “the origins of the present phase of black writing and black culture,” although black culture entails much more than writing: the Sixties saw the rise of black movies in America, and the unprecedented dispersion of black music.
By restricting black culture to literature, Dickstein can romanticize what he calls “the liberation impulse,” as when he refers to “militant separatism”:
Who among us was not at times riveted, fascinated, perhaps even frightened by these resplendent and angry new blacks, by turns hard-edged and remorseless or smoothly self-delighting, all rage and assertion in public but sometimes twinkling with affability, even self-irony in private?
Who were these “angry new blacks,” and how does Dickstein know whether or not they twinkled in private? His cozy appraisal might apply to Muhammad Ali, but it underestimates the sentiments of, say, Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, and Huey Newton, and recalls Eldridge Cleaver’s description of “what white America demands in her black champions”: the ability to be “a tiger in the ring and a pussycat outside the ring.” “Perhaps even frightened,” Dickstein allows, referring to a decade of race riots and incessant fury. The Black Panthers were not much given to self-irony, which may be one reason why they were destroyed. Dickstein never mentions them.
Gates of Eden conveys an equally cheerful impression of the New Left, “which cherished individuality and had a surplus of vision, as if it were aware of its literary roots,” by which is meant the works of Brown, Goodman, and, incredibly, Lionel Trilling: The Liberal Imagination “defended the autonomy of the literary imagination as an antidote to the crude politicization of culture,” but also “fostered…a more subtle politics, a more oblique engagement, modeled upon literature and the imagination.” This imaginative politics “came to fruition in the sixties,” much to Trilling’s chagrin, “as if he himself felt somehow implicated.” Trilling had about as much influence on the New Left as Matthew Arnold had on the Bolsheviks, but Dickstein must identify Us with his favorite teacher, who apparently couldn’t face the furor to which his literary criticism somehow gave rise.
According to Dickstein, Trilling once suggested “in an interview” that “the protesting students were practicing ‘modernism in the streets.’ But had there ever been a modernism that was content to remain in the closet or in the library?” It would have been helpful if Dickstein had supplied the context of Trilling’s phrase before taking issue with it: was not Trilling being ironic? If “modernist” refers to those early twentieth-century writers who attacked the values of the European bourgeoisie (that is, those “modernists” whom Trilling discusses in “On the Teaching of Modern Literature”), then it is difficult to see any connection between “modernism” and the student uprising at Columbia, which is what Dickstein really means when he refers to “the New Left.” What would Pound or Eliot have thought of Mark Rudd?
In 1967, one SDSer wrote that “the bulk of the membership, about 85 to 90 percent…are staunchly anti-intellectual and rarely read anything unless it comes from the underground press syndicate.” “Scratch a professor and find a pig” was a well-known Yippie witticism. Dickstein overlooks the anti-intellectualism of a great many student radicals, preferring to think that their disruptions actually vindicated the very texts which he had learned to love.
As long as he saw the New Left as bookish, Dickstein applauded it, but the “block-headed radicals” of the late Sixties dismayed him. Unable to detect their sources, he dismisses them with a fictional precedent. Of the SDS “bomb factory on West 11th Street,” he writes: “Like the hapless anarchists in Conrad’s Secret Agent, they managed to blow up only their own.” The explosion in that novel is the bungled work of an agent provocateur and it kills an innocent child, whereas the SDSers killed themselves. The simile is not only inaccurate, but distasteful, exploiting a sad and atrocious event for a glib allusion instead of examining its significance in the context of “American culture in the Sixties.”
The major political changes of that period depended on a degree of initial excess to jostle the complacency of the public and their legislators. Contrary to Richard Nixon’s base reminiscence, the war might still be going on if the young had not created a disturbance. It is very easy to look back at such behavior with disapproval while claiming to have helped by sympathizing ardently. It was not the mere nobility of the antiwar movement that stopped the war, but its latent menace: its growing numbers, its air of uncompromising intention, and even its moments of dramatic sabotage.
What is it, then, that Dickstein finds so intriguing in the Sixties? He ignores its cult of violence, plays down its pervasive mystical longings, has nothing to say about its fascination with technology. If Dickstein had wanted to examine the earnest, hard-working, and optimistic side of the antiwar movement, he should have considered the campaign of Eugene McCarthy, whom he never mentions either. But the real subject of Dickstein’s murky book is, finally, the author himself. Gates of Eden traces the progress of novelists, journalists, and Morris Dickstein to “that typical sixties destination, one’s own head.” While the Fifties forced writers to cower behind “the pose of objectivity,” the Subjective Sixties liberated everyone to talk about himself; writers could now “include the affective and subjective elements they had been taught to censor out.”
Dickstein writes in the confessional mode, revealing that he “never mastered the guitar,” that he likes political conventions, that Paul Goodman didn’t find him sexy, that Bob Dylan once smiled at Mrs. Dickstein. Dickstein’s literary criticism is as “affective and subjective” as his cultural criticism. Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test “is stupefyingly boring—I only got through half of it,” an appraisal which Dickstein might not accept from one of his own students. “The critic’s necessary role,” we learn, “is to make distinctions and judgments.” Thus supported by theory, Dickstein “makes” numerous judgments that contain nothing more revealing than his own arbitrary opinions. “Up against a wall, I’d have to call Catch-22 the best novel of the sixties.” The “melodic flow” of the Beatles’ Rubber Soul is “delicious (but somewhat too uniform).”
Although he insists that we still live in a literary age, his blithe endorsement of subjectivity is only further proof (if proof is needed) that we do not. Television did not discreetly leave after helping to stop the war, but stayed on in the American home like a quartered mercenary, wasting time and making vulgar noises. The high schools of the Sixties contributed to this antiverbal influence by emphasizing rapture and “feeling.” Rather than teach the rules of grammar, English instructors would blindfold their students and exhort them to fondle things. And now thousands of American undergraduates, intimately acquainted with the surfaces of walnuts, cannot read without moving their lips.
Only in a nonliterary age, when the standards of criticism have all but disappeared, could an English professor take his own visceral impressions seriously enough to publish them. Far from taking the Sixties seriously, he has exploited them to legitimize the solemn preservation of his reflexive opinions, as he tries to force the meaning of history from the little he has seen. Promising a “hybrid of cultural history and criticism,” he has given us The Greening of Morris Dickstein.
August 4, 1977