The Online World Is Also On Fire:
How the Sixties Marginalized Literature in American Culture
(and Why Literature Mainly Deserved It)
The real “sixties”, of course, (at least for white middle-class American youth) started in approximately 1964 with the Berkeley student revolt and, following hard on that, with the appearance of the hippie counter-culture.
In 1964/65, “literature” was still everywhere in the air among people who felt they were, or wanted to be, in the center of “what was happening”. No such person would voluntarily admit to an ignorance of Kesey, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Salinger, Jean Genet, J-P Sartre, Camus, Kierkegaard, Unamuno, Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Kafka, Mann, Aldous Huxley, Proust, Henry Miller, Michael McClure, Leroi Jones and many other names one could provide. There was an equally imposing list of names from jazz, psychoanalysis, philosophy, the theatre, film, sociology (e.g. C. Wright Mills), 20th century music, performers such as Lennie Bruce. All of these elements seemed to blend into one sensibility which one might characterize with then common-coin words such as “beat” or better “existentialist”.
About one year later, in 65/66. this world, which could have been found with some variation of names in 1950, or even in embryo in 1940, was mortally wounded. All dramatis personae at the time agreed in this assessment: ca. 1966 or 67, a group of beats around Herbert Gold put out a manifesto calling for a regroupment of people who liked jazz, literature, etc. against the rising tide of the hippie counter-culture with its beads, Be-Ins, rock concerts, communes, “underground newspapers”, mysticism (and of course basic, willed illiteracy and anti-intellectualism). It got big play for a day in the SF newspapers and was never heard of again, a pure media event. (Miles Davis, in his autobiography, has a very pointed description of his realization, ca. 1968, that jazz had been overwhelmed by rock, echoing the same assessment but drawing very different conclusions.)
What was responsible for this tremor, after which literature never regained the centrality it had in American (middle class) culture up to 1965? It was the incredible kalleidoscope of events, from the Berkeley Free Speech movement, the bombing of North Vietnam, the assassination of Malcolm X, the invasion of the Dominican Republic, the Watts riots, the emergence of LSD, riots on Sunset Strip, the break in rock associated with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the appearance of Black Power and the end of the civil rights movement, the Hells Angels’ attack on the first big Berkeley anti-war march in Fall 65, the appearance of strobe light shows and the Fillmore Auditorium and the Avalon Ballroom and the Haight Ashbury and Country Joe and the Fish, Bob Dylan’s seemingly epochal shift from folk to electric. All in one year. One might stir in the Cultural Revolution in China (that is, the fantasy thereof for Western youth), the simmering Third World revolutions in Latin America and Africa and Asia, the coming of the gurus and swamis from India, the Beatles’ shift to drugs and meditation, to add a truly international dimension.
The total impact of these events, compressed into such a short time at the very moment when there were more adolescents coming of age as a percent of the population than at any time before or since, (a demographic reality that itself stamped events) dealt a fatal blow to pre-1965 “avant-garde” culture. Michael Rossman, a Berkeley activist and journalist, wrote somewhere about the experience of the inebriation of FSM in Fall 64: he said that “the pitch was such that if one suddenly noticed that the white wall of one’s apartment was in fact a heaving wall of white ants, it might seem startling but it would not seem incredible, because incredible things were happening every day, not merely on the TV screen, but through people’s lived collective action”. The subsequent roller coaster ride up year by year rose to the crescendo of 68/69, and was followed by the crash that began, and accelerated, after 1969, to ca. 1977. In half a decade, the country had gone from LBJ’s Great Society and Martin Luther King and the Peace Corps to the Weathermen, the Altamont concert, Charles Manson and the murder of Fred Hampton by the Chicago police. Where there had been in 1960 earnest crew cut and bobbed-hair liberal supporters of JFK, and Young Republicans, there were in 1970 Trotskyists, Stalinists, Maoists, Young Lords, Black Panthers, White Panthers, Hell’s Angels, Gypsy Jokers, Up against the Wall Motherfuckers, Tim Leary and Richard Albert aka Baba Ramdass, Ken Kesey’ and his bus of Merry Pranksters, Carlos Casteneda and Mescalito, Esalen, the Guru Maharaji, the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, free jazz black nationalists, the East Village Other, the Stonewall riots, women’s consciousness raising groups, Woodstock Nation, fragged Army officers in Vietnam, the death of George Jackson, Attica, the Chicano riots in LA, the Brown Berets, the “army of 100,000 Villons” as Saul Bellow called them, “modernism in the streets” as Daniel Bell put it.
Tom Wolfe has expressed his shock that no great novel emerged from all this. Certainly, no “story” interests members of that generation (that is, people born between 1940 and 1955, people old enough to be conscious in 1970) remotely as much as the ramifications of that decade, or more precisely half-decade. The conservatives today are quite right to remain obsessed out it, correctly sensing that something was broken then that has never been put back together, literature being one part of that. And yet no serious literary expression of that earthquake was written either in the midst of it or subsequently. Undoubtedly, many people, even people who were on LSD for most of those years, subsequently started reading or (reading again) and even went back to school and are now deconstructionist literary theorists . But no one wrote a novel of any importance about it, not here, not in France, not in Germany, not in Italy or Britain or Japan, similar countries where a similar break occurred around the same time. In the mid-60’s, the most popular college major was “English”, and half of all English majors were aspiring novelists and poets. By 1970, most people still majoring in English were people planning to become suburban elementary school teachers.
During the years when reality seemed (in Rossman’s words) like a heaving wall of white ants, virtually no figure who had seemed important in 1964 had a damned thing to say about it that mattered to the ascending generation. The (media-created) battle cry was “Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30” but the hard truth was that many people would have welcomed one or two sane voices over 30, IF they had been up to the enormity of what had happened. But there were none, or almost none. And least of all from the quarters of the Lionel Trilling sensibility. (I will return to this.) Irving Howe wrote ca. 1978 in the New York Times Book Review how the lack of seriousness of the 60’s revolt was demonstrated by how few adults were involved. He forgot to mention that in the crucial years most adults were supporting the war, or in the case of the “Lionel Trilling” sensibility, denouncing the excesses of the anti-war movement.
In the wake of such events, authors such as Steinbeck, James Jones, Lawrence Durrell, Ignazio Silone, Kazanzakis, Arthur Miller, E.M. Forster, Somerset Maugham, Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, J.P. Donleavy, Francois Mauriac, Gunther Grass, Alain Robbe- Grillet, Italo Svevo, James Baldwin, Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Bernard Malamud, Edward Albee, Norman Mailer, James T. Farrell, Dostoevsky, and and their problematics seemed separated from the present by a chasm. While it is possible to use many of them to measure the distance from the sensibility of those days) they had damn little to say that illuminated the crisis that erupted in those years and which has never really abated. No novel succeeded in telling the story of real people coming of age in the 1960’s and what happened to them later, as they attempted to put together coherent lives after such an initiation. It is true that the apocalypticism that reigned from 65 to 69 was overblown and excessively dismissive of the past, and that there were lots of older people who had plenty to say. The only problem was that virtually none of them were ever mentioned in the truncated “Chaucer to T.S. Eliot” vision of reality of 1950’s and 1960’s English departments, and damn few of them were primarily “literary” figures! There’s a major source of the deflation of the prestige of literature since then. In the mid to late 60’s, with the familiar world exploding all around, English professors formed by the “new criticism” flatly denied that historical context was of any relevance in understanding “great literature”. Questions such as Pound’s fascism or Milton’s involvement with the English revolution made their way into a classroom only as an afterthought. People abandoned literature in droves for fields such as cultural history where these and similar questions were the issue. This is what the Hilton Kramers of today won’t forgive in the sixties, that they destroyed high modernist formalism, the previous two decades’ cultural restorationist myth (for all the arts, not just literature) of the “pure work of art taken by itself”. The purveyors of taste in those days wanted to pretend that figures such as Milton were as narrow and cut off from everything but the literary as they were, and worse, wanted to pretend that literature itself doesn’t wither in such a hot house, and that the life radiating from Milton’s work didn’t have something to do with those involvements. They didn’t want to hear about Shelley’s involvement in social radicalism. How unfortunate for them that Shelley did not consider such concerns beneath himself! And what a breath of fresh air to discover how totally false their arid snobbery was, and how false it was for so much of the cultural (and not merely literary) “canon”. The utter condescension of those people and their assertion that their parochial waspish Anglo-American sensibility, pervaded by the odor of tea and decaying crumpets, was smugly “superior” to lowly concerns about exploding ghettos and the napalming of Asian children, and their attempt to wall off the great culture of the past from similar concerns. How totally unlamentable the demise of their cocooned little world: one can almost forgive the “race/ gender/ class” boors of today when one compares them with the people who dominated the cultural high ground in 1965. In this respect, one can say that books like Tim Clark’s The Painting of Modern Life or Peter Linebaugh’s The London Hanged are “cultural events” more significant than the appearance of any novel since the 60’s.
If one sets the preceding list of novelists against names such as Guy Debord, Walter Benjamin, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Trotsky, C.L.R. James, (the early) Wilhelm Reich, Rosa Luxemburg, Victor Serge, E.P. Thompson, Georg Lukacs, George Orwell (for his journalism), Herbert Marcuse, Norman O. Brown, for starters, (and significantly, not one an American) there’s no question which group electrified an important current of the 60’s generation more and seemed, then and since, a more coherent guide to their present. Or, closer to today, people such as Chomsky or Christopher Lasch. One can agree or disagree with someone like Lasch, but can one argue that there is any contemporary novelist who has come close to his analysis of American culture and its malaise in the past 30 years? Can one name one post-1965 novel which has captured the imaginations of 60’s people (or anyone) as did E.P.Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class ? (the latter seeming to be about a different country than the “Chaucer to T.S. Eliot” one had dutifully ingested since the 8th grade).
But this still does not fully answer Wolfe’s question about why no novel was written in America (or anywhere else) after the 60’s which came close to capturing what went on in those years. Consider, as the beginning of an answer, the contrast with the 30’s, in the U.S. and everywhere else. Writers congresses against fascism, attended by thousands, with keynote speeches by Brecht, Gide, Mann and Romain Rolland. The “literary politics” associated with the early Partisan Review, or (Les Temps Modernes after WWII), the Masses (or even the Stalinized New Masses). The great debate over literature and fascism, as associated with names such as Pound, d’Annunzio, Brasillach, Jnger, Barres, Hamsun. The long debate over “socialist realism”, or, after the war, the “committed novel” (a la Sartre). Or Lionel Trilling and the New York intellectuals, Howe, McCarthy, Dwight McDonald’s magazine Politics. One can point to the extension of such “literary politics” into the 60’s (as in the involvement of figures such as Mailer and Lowell and McDonald in the antiwar movement) but we can also agree that they were fairly marginal to the main events of the times and above all that they had no results in literature. And again, these very problems were anathema to the theorists of “new criticism” who were on the front lines of defining what was literature in those years. The generation shaped by the 1930’s depression turned to the writing of (now forgotten) “proletarian novels”; an important part of the generation shaped by the 1960’s “which wanted to write”, under the influence of figures such as Thompson or CLR James, turned to the writing of labor history and more broadly “new social history”. And they turned there because the richness of the horizons opened up, both in what had been lived and in the question raised exactly for the “feel” of daily life in the past, was richer than any novelistic tradition at hand. It is no accident, and says a great deal, that the New York Review of Books is today dominated by historians, not by literary critics or (more up to date) literary “theorists”.
By 1970, many of the young people with literary aspirations in 1965 were studying history, philosophy, or social theory, or all three, and some were “standing fast” in factories, Harvey Swados fashion. (To be honest, many were studying law and medicine, never to be heard from again.) Serious social history offers a kind of vehicle to the “way it was” that one finds in certain novels, as in the best passages of a book such as Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages or an E.P. Thomson description of an English execution in 1820 (admittedly, exceptional masterpieces but there are a number) and one must concede that these works provide a lot of anthropology of daily life, much like a Thomas Hardy novel. Novels are undoubtedly a superb, perhaps unsurpassed, way of entry into these realities, and historians have only begun to write about such dimensions in the past few decades. Novels and poetry undoubtedly open up realities that no history can match. It’s just that none have succeeded in doing so for our epoch and, as someone once said, all the rest is scholarship. Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night (1968) and a lot of his other 60’s journalism actually comes closer to being true “literature” of the period than any novel I’m aware of. A somewhat similar evolution can be followed in Sartre’s turn from (on the whole) eminently forgettable novels in the 40’s to his attempts to grapple with history, (a dialogue with history being already present in Nausea) and with the situation of a writer like Flaubert in history, but Mailer is really unique in attempting to fuse novelistic subjectivity with a large canvas of historical events, whatever his success (and he certainly caught the spirit of the events).
The sixties ended in an ugly mood, as the lyricism of 1968 gave way to Kent State, the invasion of Cambodia and national student strike against it, the Altamont rock concert (Hell’s Angels again), the COINTELPRO back-alley operations against the Black Panthers, the Manson murders, (and Weather Underground leader Bernardine Dohrn’s applause for them), calls to “smash” (a key word then) monogamy (and the family and the state, all in the same breath), the authoritarian degeneration of dozens of urban and rural communes, the Chicago conspiracy trial, the New Haven Panther trial and endless other movement trials, the vogue for Kim il Sung and “ju che” (the North Korean doctrine of self-reliance), dozens of campus and public building bombings, the self-destruction of four Weatherpeople in a Village bomb laboratory, and increasing paranoia about CIA, FBI, DIA and local “red squad” agents on every campus and in every leftist political group. The Haight-Ashbury in 1964 had been a quintessential working class and Bohemian neighborhood and in 1967 the center of the “summer of love”; by 1970 it was a dangerous, seedy place of strung out methadrine freaks scrounging spare change, the burned out hulk of an evanescent millennarian euphoria. (It would only recover a decade later with the beginning of gentification, about which more later.) The breakdown and partial Lumpenization of the New Left and hippie counter-culture led to a reification of language rivaling anything in 1930’s Stalinism. One could see a former Princeton graduate student, a drop-out and full-time political activist, slicing the air before him with practice karate chops as he walked and talked, and using “ju che” as an adjective, as in “he’s really ju che” , meaning “he’s really together”: an unforgettable sign of the times. Marcuse called this whole process of half-crazed, declassed, guilt-ridden, downwardly mobile middle-class people determined to “smash” every bourgeois vestige within themselves, a generation seemingly suddenly seized with visions of Nechaiev, “repressive desublimation”. Only a small minority of people really shaped by the 60’s drank this cup to the dregs, but few people seriously involved with what had happened escaped its vortex entirely. Not one person in the center of this maelstrom would dream of writing a novel about what was going on; the times were for getting jobs to organize in factories, and for karate, and target practice, and study groups on Capital, and a hardening of sensibilities on every side, not for poetry as understood by Charles Olson or Robert Lowell, and bored indifference to the mere suggestion of such an endeavour in 1970 or 1971 would be the most civil response one could imagine. It is stunning that an observer in some ways as astute as Tom Wolfe could have missed this, and not see it as a major reason that no novel was ever written about the 60’s. No one outside this moment could have done it, and no one inside it would have.
The American 1960’s were, among other things, once revolutionary fervor was removed, a downsizing of the expectations of a significant portion of the middle class, which would culminate in gentrification, prior to the downsizing which has been remaking the world of corporate America since the 1970’s. People forever lost to the world of Leave It to Beaver could only re-embrace it when it was repackaged as Sex, Lies and Videotape.
The crucial connection between the end of the 60’s and the post-modern world was the movement of a significant number of the 60’s generation from the “Nechaiev” vortex described above, to their gentrification in the professional middle classes. In 1969, tens of thousands of these people wanted to be professional revolutionaries; by the late 70’s, many of them were content merely to be…professionals. This transformation of the political and cultural vanguards of 1965-70 into one section of the yuppies of 1980 was even more striking in Europe than in America, for reasons too complex to elaborate here. It is most striking of all in academia, on both sides of the Atlantic. But America fell farther and faster than Europe in the past 25 years, and it is false to see today’s fashionable academic pseudo-left as recruited significantly from serious militants of the late 60’s, as is in fact the case in France, Germany or Italy. Many of those militants, far from the TV cameras and the sound bite, are still standing fast, in one way or another. The sometimes erratic Camille Paglia, in her brilliant essay “Corporate Raiders and Junk Bond Traders”, on the “cultural studies” scene today, rightly points out (against neo-conservative propaganda) that no serious leftist could make it in the 1970’s academy, assuming he/she wanted to, which few did. Nevertheless, the hedonism of the new professional strata that emerged with the “high tech” world in the 70’s and above all the 80’s, so far from the “organization man”, the “man in the gray flannel suit” of 40 years ago, can only be understood as a legacy of the 60’s. The Soho or Tribeca lofts, the minimalist furniture, the Italian fashion, the espresso, the cocaine, the granola, the cult of cuisine and designer ice cream, are all a bizarre refraction of 1950’s New York Bohemia, after the nihilist “hollowing out” that removed literacy and any concern for radical politics. And one must not overlook the little detail that this “life style”, often in the very premises of former cold water flats or garment factories, requires an annual income of $150,000 a year to maintain. New York or San Francisco Bohemia, the last social milieu in the U.S. that took literature seriously beyond the reach of the dead hand of the academy, was cheek by jowl with working-class neighborhoods and working-class radicalism. It suffices to think of New York’s White Horse Tavern, where Dylan Thomas and radical longshoremen drank, or analogous places in San Francisco’s North Beach, described so beautifully by Kenneth Rexroth. And it suffices to think of what has happened to such places by 1995. It is true that most people who earn $150,000 a year today are “on line” in one way or another. But that was only the final step in the process which produced them, which was the growing pressure to professionalize, destroying the old genteel poverty and sweeping away so many 1960’s people and enclaves. These dual income/no kids people, in contrast to the old liberal professional classes (who had much more leisure time), do not read much of anything unless related to their 90-hour workweeks, which started well before computers swept all before them in the 80’s. The transformation of America in the past 30 years into an “hour glass” society, leaving only yuppies and the homeless in cities like Manhattan and devastating the life conditions of the urban working class and marginal Bohemia, is a major factor in the decline of reading.
It is certainly true that the “plugged in” daily reality of the American middle class businessman, (now that we have situated such people more fully in their contemporary context) that such a reality, which is shared by half or more of the population, offers little possibility for a novel of the stature of Light in August or Studs Lonigan. (In fact, Faulkner’s “The Bear” can probably be read as much as an obituary for a certain kind of life as for the possibility of writing fiction about contemporary life in an interesting way).
As indicated above, “professionals” have less leisure than 30 or 50 years ago. They’re more swept up in the rat race. The work week has increased (for those who work) by 20% since 1973, and two “professional” paychecks will barely support a family of four which one supported handily in 1960. The on-line life of that businessman ignores the fact that the growing social and spatial ghettoization of American society artificially isolates him from 12-year olds with automatic weapons, abandoned Midwestern steel towns, a homicide rate off the charts in the industrial world and a teen suicide rate not far behind, AIDS, the return of TB, religious revivalism, homelessness, and teenage parenting, and creates a totally artificial environment protected as much by security guards and more subtle “No Trespass” signs as by on-line technology. This is in total contrast to the situation up to the 1950’s, where all social classes jostled each other in daily life, at least in some major cities. This was the great reality that made a Dickens or Balzac possible, and it came unstuck long before the computer and e-mail.
One might ask how many people today, and particularly people under 40, can read Joyce, Woolf or Proust as they were meant to be read. To read these authors as they are meant to be read is undoubtedly the province of a small and declining number of people. That’s precisely the rub. The contemporary reader who reads classics such as Rabelais or Dante might find it all quite edifying, but then years can go by when no one in their ken so much as mentions Rabelais or Dante. The modern reader of such works can persist, but it will always be an effort against the feeling that Dante’s Ninth Circle is getting closer by the day, breaking beyond the bounds of “literature”, as children exchange gunfire across America, marauding guerrilla bands without ideology or purpose are razing city and countryside like locust hordes in Angola and Liberia and Afghanistan, people are eating book glue to get through the winter in Sarajevo, 10 million abandoned and glue sniffing children are living in the streets of Brazil and being exterminated like rats by roving police death squads, a million people are in U.S. prisons having heavy metal piped into their cells 16 hours a day (and liking it), Moslem fundamentalists are slitting the throats of Westernized women in Algeria and assassinating intellectuals who criticize them, homeless people are getting their breakfast out of garbage cans up the street from my house, 40 semi-declared or undeclared wars are currently in progress, there’s bubonic plague in India and all kinds of diseases coming back in the U.S. because of budget cuts, millions of people are working full time at minimum wage and living in shelters, and paramilitary neo-Nazi groups are holding maneuvers in Idaho and in Virginia. In this world, it is difficult to cultivate the state of mind into which one enters through, among other things, great literature. The world is on fire, and as someone said, when the house is on fire, it focuses the mind and makes it difficult to think of other things. At the end of Homage to Catalonia Orwell evokes the ” deep deep sleep of England”, in which, even in a world on fire, the Times was on the doorstep every morning, with the milk, and predicts (in 1939, of all years) that England would be dragged from this sleep by the sound of falling bombs. One could up-date that passage today for millions of people who live the deep sleep of American suburbia and exurbia, since many cities are already inured to the sound of gunfire in the night. The increasing immersion of the social classes which historically read literature in artificial ghettos of various kinds walling them off from the realities of the times (an artificiality, to be sure, enhanced by electronic technology) robs literature of its “purchase”, and turns it into “elevator music”, to use Don DeLillo’s metaphor.
One might argue that what I am expressing in the above is fundamentally middle class guilt, and that Henry James or Virginia Woolf or James Joyce could have produced a comparable list of horrors that did not prevent them from writing novels and appreciating them. But that is where I beg to disagree. I’ll sidestep a quarrel about whether the world in 1995 is more barbaric than it was in 1895, since most people would probably agree that it is, but moreover since it is not central to the question at hand. Many canonical works of the great period of the novel were written during the long peace of 1815-1914, when at least the leisured classes could travel from St. Petersburg to Paris and London and on through the colonial world without so much as a passport. Hannah Arendt (in The Origins of Totalitarianism) noted the appearance of a brutalized new social type in modern capitalist society beginning with the colonial experiences (and massacres) of the 1870’s and 1880’s, (intensified by the Boer War) but this new social type did not have serious social consequences until the mass jubilation of August 1914 in Europe occasioned by the outbreak of World War I (when everyone thought they’d be home by Christmas) and above all in the 1920’s, when fascist street gangs, steeled by the experience of the trenches, became a real force in many European countries. One could go on. Many of the Russian revolutionaries sentenced by the Tsar to Siberia hunted, fished and wrote books in exile; by the 1930’s, millions sent there by Stalin perished in concentration camps. The 18th and 19th literary experience is, for the English-speaking world, mainly one of gentility, and the 20th century, to put it mildly, has not been kind to gentility. Nor have many of its greatest works been written by or for people of gentility. And there’s not much left of gentility except illiterate gentrification.The question, as always, is why.
One might ultimately reject Adorno’s comment that it is impossible to write poetry after Auschwitz, but it is a problem which the 19th century genteel reader did not have to confront, and of which he/she could not have conceived.
But to return , one last time, to the impact of the 60’s. A fairly Anglo-American centered sensibility dominated the main current of literary taste in the U.S. into the early 1960’s. But for more than a century prior to the 60’s, (but not, principally, in England) the cutting edge of literature had passed to Bohemia, above all in France. The most dynamic milieus of the American literary scene by the early 60’s was the kind of Bohemia associated with the beats. As Leroi Jones/Amiri Baraka put it in his autobiography, his encounter with beat poetry in the 50’s was the first time he discovered that “poetry could be written about something besides Greek statues and suburban birdbaths”. Many of the original beats were at least briefly Trilling’s students and rebelled in part precisely against the gentility of the liberal literary milieu after the war. And French Bohemia loomed large, as the archetype, in American Bohemia in the 50’s and early 60’s. But it was a Bohemian tradition associated with Villon, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Henry Miller, Celine, Genet, Camus or Sartre, and it was already out of touch with the fact that by the 1950’s in France the “human sciences” were rapidly overshadowing literature as the focus of cultural debate, as exemplified by Sartre’s own turn from writing novels to writing tomes of Marxist theory and a Marxist-existentialist study of Flaubert. (It also was largely oblivious to a French questioning of the very idea of literature since at least Dada and surrealism, which fed into the later development of theory.) This disjuncture between American perceptions of France and what was actually happening in France would bear its fruits after 1968 when continental “theory” overwhelmed the moribund Anglophile tradition embodied by “new criticism”. But the broader point remains that literature was being eclipsed by other concerns in the major countries of Europe as well, and Rossman’s “heaving wall of white ants” experience was hardly limited to America, and similarly surpassed the ability of literature to be its main expression. In Germany the Group of 47, in France the Temps Modernes milieu, and in England the “angry young men” were just as rudely demoted by the late 60’s apocalypse as Lionel Trilling (and the beats) in the U.S. Things were afoot that just weren’t in the “Chaucer to T.S. Eliot” philosophy, and they were not in the Jack Kerouac/Allen Ginsberg philosophy either. It has been noted before that many 1930’s (and particularly Jewish) intellectuals in the U.S. used Anglo-American literary modernism as a vehicle into the previously exclusively WASP elite. History may show the sixties to have been in part about a similar kind of “strategy” , to use today’s jargon, for still newer groups. But the 60’s had the (for the U.S.) unprecedented impact of breaking the hegemony of a ridiculously provincial Anglo-American literary fixation and hegemony, in Bohemia and in academia. Whatever his problems, Maurice Blanchot is a hell of a lot more interesting, and in touch with the serious philosophy of the century, than I.A. Richards.
The breaking of the mold set by Pound, Joyce and Eliot, and by such critical currents as Irving Babbitt, Trilling, or Richards, and the increased influence of continental thought over Anglo-American provincialism has to be seen as an achievement of the 60’s, and a positive one, pace the furies of the New Criterion.
But this was hardly a mere movement of ideas. This would never have happened, and the reading and writing of novels and poetry would not have been so demoted, if something far deeper and more fundamental had not happened in the culture. This was the movement from “internalization” to “externalization” that transformed the small American literary Bohemia of 1940-65 and its “forbidden” activities into the vast explosion of the late 60’s. History will decide whether or not an element of that explosion did not involve a vast “ghost dance” simultaneous with the beginning of America’s international and domestic decline, harbinger of the social restructuring that has followed, a restructuring often masked by edulcorated 60’s ideology and hedonism. One example that immediately comes to mind is the involvement with drugs and the homosexuality of a Ginsberg or a Burroughs in Mexico or Tangier or San Francisco in 1950, and then the way in which these phenomena swept the culture by 1970. Few people reading the original edition of Burrough’s Junkie in 1953 would have imagined the impact of drugs in the world of 1995, which seems to be synthesizing the dystopias of Orwell and of Huxley. At least since 1940, the entanglement of literary Bohemia with cultural “taboo” was never far below the surface in such milieus. By 1970, “Bohemian” attitudes towards blacks, women, sex, nature, drugs and “lifestyle” were influencing millions, which was of course, in the broader context of the social transformations sketched above, the end of Bohemia, and of the kind of writing (and reading) which went on there. Consider the evolution of Leroi Jones to Amiri Baraka. When a “counter-culture” virtually becomes the culture, something in it has to change. Aldous Huxley and a handful of people experimenting with mescaline in Taos in 1962, Kerouac living alone at Big Sur in the late 50’s: how could quality change to quantity on such a scale without a profound impact? In the 1920’s Malcolm Cowley and his friends went up to a little Catskills town named Woodstock to write; but we mainly know the name because of the 1969 rock concert attended by hundreds of thousands. The same thing happened to every Bohemian enclave, and not just in the U.S. The paeans to the “Seraphim Sailors” in Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1955) had by 1969 metamorphosed into the Stonewall riots. There could no longer be “beats” when many of their attitudes and lifestyles were on the streets in mass movements of blacks, Latinos, women, gays, ecologists, never existing before with such force. In the movement from elite sub-cultures to mass movements, something that was previously written about begins to be lived, and therefore writing must change, or dessicate. Imagine Madame Bovary discussing her problems in a women’s consciousness-raising group in 1970, or Kierkegaard talking about his in a Carl Rogers encounter group or at an Esalen retreat. This undoubtedly involves an element of “repressive desublimation”, but the pre-1965 literary world was totally superceded by events in face of it.
The 60’s were a vast return of the repressed, something like Aschenbach’s dream at the end of Death in Venice, whose repercussions have by no means played themselves out .There was a vast stretching of the culture’s sensibilities, which pre-empted the traditional role of art in that stretching, precisely because much of it originated in the art world of the previous avant-garde The result has been an explosion of books on subjects unimaginable 30 years ago. Take the works of the gay historian John Boswell on medieval Christianity and homosexuality; they are almost literally inconceivable without the Stonewall riots. One could find hundreds of similar books, of uneven quality, on the history of every one of the cultural taboos shattered by the 60’s. Again, one can be more or less enthusiastic about the intellectual climate unleashed by “cultural studies”, but they are just one example of the kind of opening of the “doors of perception” that has occurred, with which few novels compete. The idea that novels convey to us an irreplacable feel for daily life is unfortunately confined to the times and places in which novels were written, which is pretty limited historically and geographically. In an hour in a high-quality bookstore one can find massive studies of Shi’ite theology and its impact on Iranian history, the social history of Memphis in late antiquity, Amazonian shamanic medicine, Jewish mysticism in 13th century Barcelona, the impact of alchemy on the history of science in the West, the 16th and 17th century utopian millennia in the New World, the role of transported radical political convicts in the formation of 17th century Jamaica, Ifa divination, 17th century Andean resistance to Spanish colonialism, 18th century Aleppo, the architecture of Barabudur, and T’ang aesthetics, (and these are just subjects that leap to mind) and about which next to nothing was widely available prior to the 60’s. Lionel Trilling never heard of such things, and that’s too bad for Lionel Trilling, and the cramped reality he represented. The novel and poetry are not merely competing with on-line reality, they are competing with the growing discovery of realms of history more fantastic than anything that could have been made up.