I lived in Vermont from 1962-71, and I met many of what I later came to call 60’s people. While I recognized them for what they were at the time—that required no great penetration—nevertheless there were things about them that puzzled me: Why did they suddenly appear in droves there and then? Why were they taken so seriously? Most puzzling of all, how was it that they completely escaped analysis and criticism?
The way we got mixed up with the 60’s people is a little embarrassing to relate. In September 1962, my wife and I and our four small children moved from Massachusetts, where I had been teaching, to a farmhouse on a remote hillside in northern Vermont. We had a dozen hens, a cow, $300, and the rent was paid for two years. I did not know then and I cannot tell now what we thought we were doing; “living off the land” may have been part of it (though that movement had not yet begun), but I am not sure, simply because I am uncertain as to whether we had gotten that far in our thinking.
Because of the appearance of our situation, as well as the fact that the place we rented belonged to a locally notorious proto-60’s person (in the fullness of time—and of bitterness—we called him Mr. Simple Living, after a pamphlet he wrote extolling the virtues thereof), it was assumed by all that we belonged to the new breed. So we saw the 60’s world from inside, while our lack of money kept us detached from it.
Money. The great undiscussed subject of the 60’s. Without exception, every 60’s person I knew had money or ready access to it, and they all lied about it, pretending always that they had very modest means and that the little bit they had was earned by hard work. Money was the only thing that set us apart from the 60’s people; otherwise we were indistinguishable from them: young (they were in their 20’s and 30’s), born and raised in the Bos-Wash suburbs, educated in the humanities at Eastern liberal arts colleges and prestige universities, wholly unintellectual, possessing a mental stock consisting not of received ideas but of received attitudes. What money meant to them and why they lied about it were clearly important questions which remained mysteries to me for some time. The consequences of our impecuniousness, on the other hand, were apparent almost at once.
It would be a few years before a move like ours would be widely applauded by all right-thinking citizens; at the moment it was regarded by our relatives and former friends as an act of almost maniacal stupidity for which we deserved whatever we got, and then some. In spades. And double good riddance. For the first time in our lives, we were on our own. We could not avoid the results of our own folly; we had to see it through to the end. Whatever became of us would be entirely our own doing. Although we learned a great deal, and very quickly, from the practical realism of our new life, the most important lesson was a general truth of character: Forced to do everything for ourselves, nothing could be shirked or falsified. We suffered a discipline in honesty. Be assured that I would have chosen wealth and idleness over honesty any day. The trouble was, we had no choice.
Naturally, our experience made us sensitive, perhaps oversensitive, to behavior that falsified what we were doing and learning—the behavior, we soon discovered, of 60’s people.
The Woodwrights were a charming couple who owned a picturesque farm and lived in a pretty little house—blue and rose stencils on rough-cast plaster walls, brightly polished old wood stove—which they never tired of showing to visitors. In fact, I first began to have doubts about the Woodwrights when they told me proudly how many viewers they had the previous weekend, because it made me think about some scenes I had witnessed there and at our own place. While we were no competition for the Woodwrights, we got a sprinkling of similar rubbernecks, mainly disciples and acquaintances of Mr. Simple Living, just up from Boston for a drive to look at the leaves, or flying in from New York to check the locks on the summer place. What they did, both to us and to the Woodwrights, was to cast us as stars in a morality play called the Beautiful Simple Country Life, while we half-consciously encouraged them: To make the play work, both actors and audience have prescribed lines, specific tasks and actions and gestures, collaborating, as I belatedly realized, in the fictionalization of our lives (the game of 20 Beautiful, etc. Questions—”And you raise all your food yourselves?” “You use horses for everything?” “You grind the flour in that little mill?”—played a prominent part in the drama). I liked the Woodwrights very much, but after that, when I realized that they courted their roles, I felt just a little scornful of them. Perhaps I was being a prig, but after all, the whole phonus-balonus was easy enough to stop: Just quit responding to cues (“No, we never grind flour in that thing; we buy it in town”). But then, all the admirers go away.
Meanwhile, I met my first hippie homesteaders at the Woodwrights, appropriately, because they, too, were roleplayers. They became the most prominent 60’s people in the countryside, not just because of their numbers—within a couple of years they were flooding Vermont, disfiguring the landscape with their yurts and A-frames, tepees and tree houses—but because for a decade or so nearly every newspaper and magazine in the nation featured articles extolling hippie homesteaders near and far, spotlighting their roles as the visitors had done for us and the Woodwrights. These were plucky young folks, independent and self-sufficient, who were living off the land and teaching us precious lessons about the environment, love, peace, justice, etc., as they nobly attempted to escape the dreadful ills of contemporary America (the “rat race,” pollution, alienation, etc.) in the bosom of Mother Nature. The story is too well-known to bear repeating. The point to keep in mind, however, is that those articles, virtually identical assemblages of cliches, were all invariably and utterly lies. I doubt if a single truthful word was ever published about the hippie homesteaders; their very breath was falsehood. They weren’t independent, they weren’t self-sufficient, they didn’t do anything they said they did. But they were very popular with the middle class (their rural neighbors more or less ignored them) for the same reasons that the Woodwrights were: Their Beautiful Simple Country Life dramas boosted the egos not only of the participants, but also of the observers, even the distant readers of a newspaper article. How often had I seen visitors’ faces glow with mingled wonder and satisfaction as they asked those absurd rhetorical questions about the grain mill or the workhorses.
I think Country Fakery (as we came to call it) was immediately superficially popular because it set its participants apart from and above the masses of yahoos out there in Consumerland. As the privileged often do, confusing aesthetics with ethics, they certified their superiority by taste: the enlightened ones parked their VW microbuses or Landrovers beneath the elms beside the village green, while boorish proles or repressed lower-middle-class clerks drove to their senseless jobs in Detroit behemoths; the illuminated togged themselves from the L.L. Bean catalog, the unwashed fought over polyester shirts on sale at Zeller’s, and so on through all the objects and rituals of a complex modern society, the highest on the list of taste tests being the pastoral myth itself which, in its 60’s form, allowed its believers to think of themselves, even vicariously, as unimplicated in gross contemporary society while enjoying all its fruits.
I thought that the popularity of Country Fakery ran deeper than the motivation of flattery would suggest, and it was another discovery about the Woodwrights that provided me with the beginning of an answer. I had known Mrs. Woodwright’s brother Jack before we moved to Vermont; it was he who attracted us there and had secured the lease from the distant Mr. Simple Living. Both he and the Woodwrights had very small herds of Jersey cows, and they seemed quite self-reliant to me: They cut their own lumber and firewood, they tapped their maple trees, and so on. Because their operations were so small, I thought their knowledge would be relevant to our situation, and I was counting heavily on being able to rely on their advice and guidance. One day I hurt myself, and Jack kindly drove me to a doctor. On the way, I explained how anxious I was about my health, because for the first time in my life I was independent, the sole support of my family. Jack, who was in his late 30’s, cheerfully replied that he had never been independent because his wealthy mother gave him a generous allowance. She had bought the cows and paid for the new well and bought the truck. My heart sank. It dropped into my boots when he told me that his sister also received a large allowance. But the Woodwrights pretended that their Beautiful Simple Life all came out of the milk check.
Understand me: I had no objection to the Woodwrights’ way of life, and I couldn’t care less where their money came from, but the pretense bothered me. Why couldn’t they be honest and admit that they could afibrd to farm in an agreeable, easygoing way (with much help) because they had an outside income? There was nothing shameful about that. After all, even the most cursory observation of the many farmers in the area showed that while it was possible in those days to make a living with a small herd of Jerseys, it was hard, hard work, and there was damned little beauty in it. I had to meet a lot of hippie homesteaders and people like the Woodwrights before I was able to understand that the reason they lied (and most of them probably deceived themselves, too) was that their imaginary position gave them an extraordinary sense of freedom from constraint.
Look at it this way: If the Woodwrights had been candid about their income, then their achievement on the farm would not have seemed nearly so impressive, because it would have been realized that, far from performing some extraordinary feat of legerdemain, they had merely purchased the means to do the work. The amount of labor remains the same, but now the farmer can linger over the teacups with visitors because he is paying someone else to mow his hay. Now what if you’re a Country Fake and you convince yourself that your outside income doesn’t really count, is insignificant, and that the entire operation is financed by farm sales? (I have known hippie homesteaders who claimed that a garden the size of my kitchen paid for everything, including a new four-wheel drive truck.) And you have spare time, you entertain visitors, and you read books? Don’t you see that it must seem as if you have suspended some physical laws? That was the imaginary position, the freedom that so exhilarated the Country Fakes. Incidentally, that’s why they scorned the methods of efficient modern agriculture—machinery, fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides, hybrid seed—because they had abrogated the laws of practical farming reality.
Then there was another group of 60’s people closely related to the hippie homesteaders, the “revolutionaries.” Morris Rosen (known to all as Momo), one of my former students, came to me for tutoring in the summer of ’63. He was a scholarship boy who had quickly attached himself to his richer classmates, so I was little taken aback when he said grimly, after a tour of the farm on his first morning, that it would be a good place for guerrilla training.
“Yeah. I know some of the top cats in Progressive Labor who’d really dig this joint for maneuvers.”
I laughed uneasily. I needn’t have worried; Momo was really flexing his poses, as I realized in a moment when he told me about his “dilemma”: Should he, or should he not, come the imminent revolution, shoot his parents, who were, as he finely phrased it, “petty bourgeois to their fingertips”? I tried to change the subject by suggesting that it was really a delicate personal matter, but Momo would have none of that.
“It’s not personal,” he sternly pointed out, “it’s a matter of revolutionary justice!”
He dragged his dilemma around for a couple of days until my wife told him to shoot the old folks and shut up about it. That produced massive sulks, something that always happened whenever Momo suspected that we weren’t taking his preposterous routines seriously enough. One hot night we were sitting around the kerosene lamp reading, sweating, swatting mosquitoes, and listening to my wife express her yearning for cooling drinks, iced sherbet, and other bourgeois frivolities (we had no refrigeration), when Momo, hitherto absorbed in a deathless pamphlet by V.I. Ulyanov, suddenly slapped it on the table and bellowed, “What this country needs is a LENIN!”
“Yes, damn it,” my wife sourly retorted, “a Lenin ice.”
Sulks again, and then more sulks when we were lukewarm in our enthusiasm for the awful stories—seamless imaginative fictions, dedicated to proletarian culture—that he was writing in his role as Revolutionary Artist. I will spare you my memories of the stories, but I can’t resist a bit of his poetry:
Yes the people the workers I am with you
black yellow red I am with you
the machine guns stuttering stitching red kisses
on the bodies of the ruling class and its running
dogs yes . . .
I have treated Momo with levity because he seemed absurd, posing in one self-regarding role after another. No one took him seriously—but that was in 1963.
Momo compares revealingly with another former student from the same college, Mike, who turned up towards the end of the 60’s with his wife, Rachel. They disclosed that, as dedicated members of a faction from SDS, their job was to bore from within the Teamsters’ Union, radicalizing it in preparation for the imminent revolution, to which end they worked in a trucking firm, Mike as a loader, Rachel as a dispatcher. In between ecstatic tales of their experiences in Cuba cutting sugar cane, Mike filled me in on the career choices of some of his classmates: Peter was doing great work in the M f , Bill was running guns. Brad was high up in the Weathermen, Hugh was making bombs . . . and on it went, a roster of names of conventional, uppermiddle-class students associated with the nuttiest, most theatrically violent groups onstage at the time. To grasp the significance of these revelations, one has to know the venue.
Tweedy College, my alma mater and the last place I had taught before moving to Vermont, was one of those small, mediocre liberal arts colleges suffering from delusions of ivied grandeur that abound in New England. It had specialized for years as a finishing school for rich secondraters, the kind of men who finally become Third Vice Presidents. Mike’s vignettes showed me a convergence: The 60’s were mainstreaming, and Tweedy was beginning to swing with a new Zeitgeist. These wayward boys would soon be back on track; when conventional people join wildly extremist groups, it’s a Momo routine. Nor did it take much clairvoyance to see that their present antics would one day make some of the brighter pages in their resumes. (Tweedy, of course, would soon have Black Studies, Women’s Studies, a homosexual club, Marxists in Residence, etc., etc.)
At first sight, it looked as if Momo’s fantasies were being acted out by Mike and Rachel and their friends, thus showing the progression of radicalism in a few years, but it was still an act, still a fantasy, self-regarding role-playing essentially the same as Momo’s. There was this difference: Momo had not dared to strut his stuff anywhere but on our remote farm, knowing that he would be laughed at in the wider world; it was clear that Mike and Rachel and their friends were taken solemnly. Why? And what did it portend?
The answers came with another former student, Lenny, who exemplified one of the commonest 60’s types, so pathetic that I often think of it as a class of victims. When I first knew Lenny in 1960, he was only a foolish freshman with a vacant grin, a harmless kid who wore his red and yellow high school warm-up jacket on all occasions (a sartorial blunder at Tweedy). Some time after Mike and Rachel’s visit, there appeared at our door a rusty bread van, plastic flower decals on the hubcaps, LOVE painted on its sides, out of which stepped sandals, flowing robe, long hair, headband—all attached to Lenny. He had quit grad school (“I split the scene, man, too uptight”), had left a wife in California (“Too many hassles, man. I split the scene on my bike”), had driven across country on his Honda, picked up a job on an “underground” paper in Boston, and was now looking for organic communal life on the land in Vermont.
Judging from his appearance, we all imagined Lenny would have some interesting or profound or bizarre truths for us, but his word-hoard was limited to the hippie lexicon: “like, man,” “y’know,” “far out,” and so on. We were disillusioned. How could anyone not have one single intelligent thing to say? How could anyone so attired, so groomed not have anything even mildly interesting to say?
After he left, I said to my wife, “I’m afraid it’s the same old Lenny.”
“Yes,” she answered, “All he did was trade in the warm-up jacket for a funny robe.”
At any other time, Lenny would have led a quite ordinary, humdrum existence. What the 60’s did for him, and for countless clucks like him, was to make him seem (especially in his own eyes) glamorous by giving him conventionally “exotic” roles and speeches, costumes, and props. The Lennys of the 60’s fancied that distinction was to be had by adopting the deportment, dress, language, and mental habits of a herd of similarly undistinguished clods grouped under the media banner of the “counterculture.” That it did nothing for them except to inflate their pathetic egos at the expense of a sense of realism about themselves was its smallest injury. Far worse, for them and for the rest of us, was the way it sanctioned and encouraged, in the names of love, freedom, individuality, etc., the trivialization and finally the degradation of those precious concepts. No odium attached to him for quitting grad school or leaving his wife; on the contrary, this was “liberation,” and those in the media (and their number was legion) who pondered the Lennys of the time took pride in casting aside reason, intelligence, realism, and the wisdom of experience to discover in these pitiable adolescent attitudes weighty lessons of the heart and mind for the edification of the rest of us benighted souls who failed to see the great messages being conveyed to us by “today’s troubled youth.”
If a comparison of Momo and Mike showed me how swiftly certain absurd radical poses were becoming conventional, I saw in Lenny the incredible dispersion among quite ordinary middle-class people of the same unspoken impulses and implicit ways of thought, however superficially diverse their immediate concerns. Looking back from the end of the 60’s, from the advent of Lenny in his “Love” van, the pace of development in the decade was astonishing. It began, innocuously enough, with folks like the Woodwrights playing roles, with the help of a small admiring public, in flattering home movies of no great import. Within a few years, they were so numerous that magazines and publishing houses, founded wholly on Country Fakery, were flourishing. At the same time the hippie homesteaders seemed to jump out of the ground in their hordes. Why this? Why then? Why so sweeping and so rapid?
Although it is possible to trace the 60’s all the way back to the Enlightenment (and even beyond), we will understand them well enough if we go back only a century to the era when iconoclastic cultural modernism, allied with political radicalism, was just beginning in the U.S. As the years passed and the ideas gradually gained adherents, they took on various forms and marched under different banners but always towards the same goal: a generalized idea of freedom that took specific shape as liberation from the constraints of convention. By the 1920’s, cultural modernism, its prewar radicalism hardened and made more fanatic by the Bolshevik seizure of power, commanded the intellectual heights. From then on, all established practices or conventions were on the defensive, and as the years passed, their area of sovereignty shrank. The old ideas were drained of their lifeblood until they were only shells, nominal beliefs rattled now and then in their musty boxes to frighten the children. When modernism finally permeated the educated middle class in the late 1950’s and early 60’s, it had achieved a critical mass; conventional notions were simply blown away. (Remember the collapse of university administrations in the face of student revolts?) That explains the phenomenon of older people who were suddenly 60ed, who sported beards and sandals and love beads, and who doggedly whined that “the kids are trying to tell us something”; aging Lennys freed from ritual observance of conventions they had long ceased to believe in.
When we think of the 60’s, not as the beginning of something but as the culmination of a long process of disintegration wrought by a radical cultural force, as the final triumph of that force, then it is apparent that the 60’s are still working themselves into every nook and cranny of middle-class society, rooting out the last vestiges of decency, institutionalizing the rites of the new paganism. Probably not many of its adherents at any time thought of cultural modernism as the repeal of the Decalogue and the hard won millennia of civilization that went with it, but so it is turning out. Nevertheless, there is hope: Remember that the 60’s are an end, not a beginning, that the intellectual force of modernism was spent a long time ago (witness the barrenness in the arts), and that there is a growing realization of the terrible price we paid for our dubious freedom from the old conventions. The 60’s are not dead, but the intellectual weapons that will finally lay them low are being forged today.
What motivated my 60’s people was always the pipe dream of freedom from constraint, whether the chains took the form of farm work or monogamy or intellectual effort or democratic politics or anything at all. There would be a new heaven and a new earth and we would all be liberated as new beings. Which is why, to answer the question that seemed most puzzling to me at the beginning of this essay, nearly everyone cheered on the 60’s people and no one deeply criticized them. It was not the startling transformations or the fog of phoniness or even the wish to believe that bemused observers and assured a protective press for the 60’s, but an instinctive sense that all of us were somehow involved, implicated in a way that we could feel but not understand. And of course we were, because no one, willy-nilly, could escape some participation in the long process of cultural erosion that has been going on since before we were born. No matter how we judged the 60’s or consciously thought of them at the time, we unconsciously welcomed them. They fulfilled the spirit of the age. We could not have wholeheartedly repudiated them—which would have meant a root and branch job—without repudiating ourselves. So we cheered them on or we acquiesced or we laughed or we criticized certain aspects of the 60’s, and then we passed on and acted as if the decade was just another dusty item in the faintly ridiculous past, along with the Charleston, zoot suits, and antimacassars. We will never be able to confront the 60’s successfully, as they exist now in our culture, until we reexamine cultural modernism and our relation to it—in other words, until we face the 60’s ourselves.
The reaction to AIDS is a striking illustration of this point. Why is it that even the most obvious commonsense measures, once applied to other threats to public health (e.g., venereal disease), like the registration and reporting by doctors of all AIDS eases, cannot be done? To point to the homosexual lobby as the answer is inadequate, because then we must ask why the lobby is so powerful that it can suppress our sense of self-preservation. The homosexual movement is a foremost example of the drive for freedom from constraint, and AIDS is one of the consequences of uninhibited indulgence in that freedom. The outspoken apostles of cultural modernism, largely intellectuals and academics, will brook no interference with any of the consequences because they are afraid that the cause itself will then come under attack, threatening not merely the homosexual crusade but the entire movement of radical politics and cultural anarchism. But without the middleclass troops, the apostles are weak, and the troops, converted only in the last generation, are uneasy. Right now, they are taking only individual practical steps, i.e., doctors are being selective about their patients, friends agree to swap blood transfusions, and so on. Lacking understanding of how ideas work in society, they can only dimly see, or rather feel, that some dangerous notions are abroad today. That the ideas currently derive most of their tyrannic power from the fact that they are lodged in their own hearts and minds, and that the social despotism can be overthrown only when they begin to exorcise it from themselves, these thoughts are, as yet, far from their minds.
I would be remiss if I did not take note of what was certainly my country 60’s people’s greatest contribution to the era, the bringing together of nature worship and Marxism, a synthesis that is the apotheosis of 60’s-ism. An unlikely yoking, one would think, but the two bodies of thought share a great deal of common ground. Both, for instance, are shot through with fantasies, superstitions, and fetishistic thinking, though laying claim to the strictest rationality. Modern nature worship, the apocalyptic environmentalism of the last 25 years, is well-known for its glib show of scientific evidence, while Marxism (as no one needs to be told) has always vehemently insisted on its scientific character. In both cases, however, this is cuckoo science, the product of ideological thinking, magical reasoning, full of symbols, talismans, and taboos. Furthermore, the nature worshipers look to Marxism as the means to achieve nature’s ends (an idea that was not foreign to Marx, by the way). Since the reverse side of nature worship is hatred of the works of man, in particular “exploitive” man, Marxism, with the fierce power of its destructive animus, is very attractive to the nature worshipers, lured by the feeling that this is the force that will utterly crush capitalism and the corrupt world it has made, replacing it with a Utopia so vague as to fit the pipe dreams of every Friend of the Earth. Marxism, it is fondly hoped, will put us under the aegis of nature, where all the artificial constraints (even perhaps human contingency itself) of so-called civilization will fall away.
Whenever I recall my country 60’s, one symbolic figure comes to mind, a man who embodied not just the 60’s but the long preparation, too, and whose later career is a perfect demonstration of the sweeping success of the 60’s, as revealed in the happy stupefaction of the observers and admirers from the wider, supposedly saner, world. Scott Nearing was an early admirer of Stalin, later of Mao, and finally of Enver Hoxha. For a while he was a Communist, and he was always an ardent defender of it, never attempting to disguise his admiration of its most hideous aspects, like the slave labor camps, in his numerous books, pamphlets, and newsletter. When he moved to Vermont in the 1930’s, he became an early Country Fake, publishing books on that, too. Throughout his career, as people who knew him and as his books amply testify, he was an insufferable, sanctimonious prig and charlatan whom even lefties couldn’t stand. He was regarded, if he was noticed at all, as a quack and crank. Suddenly, however, with the advent of the 60’s, his star began to rise; disciples made pilgrimages to see him, he was treated with obsequious respect everywhere, his every lie gullibly reported, his fatuous wisdom regarded with awe in magazines and newspapers across the land. When he died, at the age of 100 in 1983, the story was carried, reverentially, on the front page of the New York Times.