I do not know what the city-bred recollect of childhood, but one of my earliest memories is of a sunny Easter morning, when I was no more than three or four years old, standing in an unpaved lane that led down to a tiny farm: the bright new grass was pushing through last year’s burnt-over stubble; the chickens muttered approvingly about the weather; and—though this seems hardly likely so close to the shore of Lake Superior—a few wild flowers had begun to unfold at the edge of the ditch.
A little later there were the summer days spent on a Swedish farm owned by a deer-hunting friend of my father or the July afternoon I stood boiling from the waist up while the rest of me froze in the Brule River, waiting patiently for the trout that never came. When I think of those days I always see birches on a bluff over an expanse of blue water.
In later years it was the sea, vast and crystalline, that spread before our house in South Carolina, and behind us what Charleston’s poet Henry Timrod described as
A league of desolate marshland, with its lush
Hot grasses in a noisome tide-left bed,
And faint warm airs that rustle in the hush
Like whispers round the body of the dead.
There is no point pretending indifference to such things. Even the hardest man will notice the landscape, and more than a few military veterans devote themselves to a garden in their declining years. As Edward Wilson reminds us, man is instinctively a naturalist, innately a lover of nature, and the more we warp ourselves away from the fields and rivers of our race’s childhood, the lonelier we become; the more hours we spend poring over catalogs from L.L. Bean and Abercrombie and Fitch; and the more eagerly we await the arrival of the year’s first seed catalogs. We may even develop a taste for Wordsworth.
Western Civ teachers frequently tell their students that the Greeks displayed little appreciation for nature. I don’t know. It is true that classical Greek poetry does not abound in landscapes and rural scenes; it took the urbanization of the Hellenistic Age to inspire the pastoral poetry of Theocritus. But Socrates was enough of a Romantic to gush over the trees and running brook at the beginning of the Phaedrus, and when Odysseus tries to describe a girl’s beauty, he draws upon the same simile of a young tree that later inspired Ezra Pound. For the Greeks any tree or spring or mountain glen might be inhabited by a divine spirit, but living as closely as they did with the real world they had no pressing need for descriptive poetry. We are not told that Adam ever composed verse in the Garden. After the fall, he might well have joined the ranks of poets who wrote of paradises lost.
The ancients typically imagined the Golden Age as a garden or at least as a life of rural simplicity. They knew, no one more than Theocritus and Vergil, that the reality of rustic life was harsh and often brutal. It was Vergil who in his poetic farmer’s almanac declares: “It is work, miserable work that conquers all”—a parody by anticipation of Ovid’s famous testimony to the power of love.
Modern man, who has cut himself off from the facts of life, is still condemned to dream of primitive Edens where men and women live in touch with nature; but with nothing solid on which to anchor our illusions, we must project our tribal memory upon the future. Some day, we shall escape from all this to a James Barrie world of Peter Pans and Admirable Crichtons. Even though “getting and spending we lay waste our powers,” there is a better world where no man will have to work to support himself, and even though we devote most of our energies to acquiring and supporting a wife (with attendant children), we can look forward to a Muslim paradise filled with irresponsible pleasures beneath the forest canopy. Our Eden is like the evolutionists’ god: It never existed, but with a little luck we shall all get there some day.
Agrarian nostalgia lies behind many of the more exotic social and intellectual movements of the past two centuries. The Romantics and Southern Agrarians come most easily to mind, but a similar back-to-nature impulse drove the early socialists into communes; it also explains more than a little of Marxism’s appeal. In the early 20th century, European agrarians were as likely to jump into National Socialist parties as into the Socialist International, but it is precisely at this point that the reactionary right meets the revolutionary left: In opposition to a value-free, industrialized modernization, both hold out visions of a communal and traditional life in touch with nature. Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath could be read as either radical or reactionary books; however, today no one would call them either liberal or conservative, since in contemporary terms, most conservatives, no less than liberals, devote themselves to a cautious defense of status quo post-Franklin Roosevelt.
All of these elements—the egalitarian itch, the desire for unwashed innocence, and the very natural libido dominandi—played a major role in what we jokingly used to call, back in the 60’s, “The Revolution.” The height of the 60’s is now some 20 years distant, and yet it is again the subject of television documentaries and New Republic articles in which balding (still long-haired) Marxists and ex-Marxists ask themselves, “Why did we fail?”
By we they generally mean the SDS and other loudmouth/softcore revolutionists who barely knew enough to load a shotgun, much less to plant a bomb or knock over a bank. The truth is, hardly anyone on or off the campus ever took the New Left seriously either as a promise or a threat. They were convenient for a liberal establishment that desperately needed the peril of a red menace to unite the country behind. Predictably, most conservatives endorsed the liberal propaganda by backing the Johnson-Kennedy War and supporting the semi-literate progressives who masqueraded as college presidents. If students disrupted Clark Kerr’s multiversity at Berkeley, what difference did it make? Campus riots were only a temporary interruption in the orderly manufacture of bureaucrats and ideologues. But, almost inevitably, conservatives continue to take the bait: the soft left’s latest gimmick is to stage “second thoughts” conferences at which paunchy SDSers repent publicly and pass the hat. Token conservatives are invited to lend an air of respectability to the Punch-and-Judy proceedings. Well, there’s a conservative born every minute, and as a group they seem inexhaustibly willing to embrace anyone with leftist credentials, no matter if he’s never had any first, much less second, thoughts.
My own experience of student radicalism is somewhat limited, to say the least—a few demonstrations, a strategy session or two, several unpleasant experiences of being caught in the wrong places at the wrong time, but my impressions of those days have been confirmed by a great many other 60’s refugees. At Chapel Hill, for example, where SDS was said to have a strong chapter, they were regarded as a small group of out-of-state students with funny names, led by equally out-of-it professors. They were boring, pompous, and as undereducated as the football team—they still are. (As early as the mid-60’s Berkeley philosophy professor John Searle was pointing out that campus radicals had actually little in common with campus intellectuals.) As John Lennon so sagely observed, quoting the slogans of Chairman Mao was rarely a good opening line, at least not with any girl not making a career out of ugliness. Early campus Bohemians had lived a life of wine, women, and song, but the New Left contented itself with dope, dogs, and mimeographed propaganda.
Most of the 60’s “kids” were simply out for the usual good time. Of those who did take things seriously, a considerable number went off the deep end with music, irresponsibility, and drugs. A greater number, the majority at most schools, went to class, got married, and are now doing reasonably well. How well I remember the “riot” that shut down Chapel Hill. We were supposed to go to Washington to protest the war. One New Left type boasted to me that the Revolution had really come this time, because the Jocks and the Frat Rats were in on it now. Well, all the Jocks and Frat Rats I saw came back with a golden tan and a hangover from their weekend at Carolina Beach.
It is not that there was no common vision in the 60’s, only that it had little or nothing to do with any of the ranting hysteria we were subjected to by the SDS, Black Panthers, and radical feminists (let’s not forget who really won the revolution!). You could look for the 60’s vision not in the Port Huron Statement but in the reactionary folk songs (and later rock music) to which everybody listened. In those days the typical singer was a city boy wearing clod-hopper shoes (for all that hard travelin’) and a linen smock with a rawhide lace. They were nice suburban white boys who played English ballads, Appalachian fiddle tunes, and always blues—the songs of dispossessed traditional peoples. Their views on technology, tradition, and culture might have been lifted directly from I’ll Take My Stand. If there had been a real party of the right in America, they would have joined it in a minute and taken with them a large part of the revolting youth.
What began in youth and gladness went bad very quickly, somewhere between 1966 and 1968. I saw the difference in San Francisco before and after Love Summer. Even the campus radicals of the mid-60’s had not been complete cretins, but filling out the ranks of the Hippies and Yippies were the dropouts, failures, and village idiots of every suburban high school in America. Demographics alone could explain why everything fell apart. Besides, SDS didn’t have enough Communists to go around—most members of the campus left weren’t disciplined enough to be trustees in an asylum, much less run a movement (the word revolution is laughable). Even the folk singers lost their way.
I remember well the last time I saw Tom Paxton and Phil Ochs on stage. It must have been about ’69 or ’70. The occasion was a strike by food service workers. Paxton sang a number of lovely songs he had just recorded, in the ripening baritone of his later years. Ochs went through his usual aces without much energy before disappearing back stage for several minutes. He reappeared dramatically in a gold lame suit that fit him skintight. He did an entire set of rockabilly and doo-wop numbers: “I don’t care what people say, rock and roll is here to stay.” The party was clearly over.
The next thing I heard of Phil Ochs was that he had killed himself after a fruitless search for a meaningful revolution in the Third World. Some popular magazine (Esquire? Time? does it matter?) headlined the story, “He ain’t marching any more.” They don’t even respect their own martyrs. Anyone over 45 today would be tempted to say good riddance to Phil, but someone under 40 is more likely to look for good in all that happened, remembering the friends who went bad, destroying their career chances and even their lives; such a person might even smile, driving down the road on the way to the office, when he hears Roger McGuinn’s opening chords on “Turn, Turn, Turn” on the ear radio. Ripped off from Scripture by a Communist as one of many anthems for doomed youth, the song held out the promise of peace, of life in tune with the natural currents of the seasons, and of hope—”I swear it’s not too late.” But it was too late, even before they started.
The kids of the 60’s were their parents’ children, for good and for ill: intelligent but illiterate—if not downright anti-intellectual, materialistic, and generous, willing to work if the rewards were high and the risks were low. They simply could not afford to drop out of a system that had made them and spoiled them—what would they do without Social Security? They accepted what they had been told about justice, equality, and the American Way; they only wanted to see these impossible dreams realized in everyday life. Born in cities and suburbs, their imaginations were still nourished on pastoral fantasies, and they yearned, as we all yearn, for clean air and water, for the continuity of generations, and for the wilderness in which they believe our salvation lies. What they are going to do about it, now that they are stockbrokers, insurance men, and lawyers is anybody’s guess, but the one political topic that can always lure them out of the health club is environmentalism. In 10 years, when they’ll be running the country, the kids will be reflecting upon the golden days of their youth in the 60’s, and by 1996 the Greens may control at least one house of Congress. To everything there is a season.