Undercover: Those Fabulous Sixties (04/07/77)

Some people who grew up during the 1960s, or who were in one way or another formed by them, look back at that time with embarrassment; some look back with longing and regret. There were many chances taken and many chances blown. Some have put the inventive, irresponsible, questing, naive, limit-busting spirit of those years behind themselves, repressed it; others, whose thoughts can be found in almost any issue of the Village Voice, New Times, Rolling Stone, or even Time, the New Yorker or the New York Times, have sentimentalized that spirit and the decade that gave rise to it. These days such people refer to themselves and to those with whom they feel some political or cultural kinship as “survivors,” as if, for one with certain access to most of the privileges of white middle-class life (for that is the sort of person who regularly turns up as a “survivor”), merely to have made it into the mid-Seventies in any form other than that of a corpse or a vegetable is to have accomplished a feat so remarkable as to deserve the approbation of all men and women good and true. It is hard to imagine a more timid betrayal of the doomed, utopian spirit of the 1960s than that.

I bring all this up because I have been reading Morris Dickstein‘s Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties (Basic Books, 300 pp., $11.95), and it has reminded me—again—how much we need a book that could, in a wide-ranging, pluralistic, organic manner, help us understand what happened in the Sixties, how it happened, what it was worth, and what it cost. This is pretty well what Dickstein—an English professor and contributing editor to Partisan Review—says he means to do, and he fails on every count. If his book has value, it is as a text on how not to write a book about the Sixties.

Dickstein’s basic working assumptions are quite straightforward: “Even the formal concerns of the artist, which, like the quarrels of the intellectuals, often seem parochial to the world at large, usually reflect that world in intense miniature. 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.” Now, as critical methodology such assumptions are just fine, as long as the critic does not flatter himself or herself that they are actually true. An idea such as “the culture of an age is a unified thing” is not on its face a statement about the real world, but a kind of distorting lens that allows the critic to see an object—a novel, a movie, a political movement, a society, an era—in a way that ideally reveals detail and form that would not be visible with normal vision. If the critic forgets the artificiality of his or her vision, or, like Dickstein, has never been aware of it to begin with, the critic’s work will not only fail to offer more than a small piece of the truth, but whatever it does offer will constitute a betrayal of the reality that has been screened out, forgotten or ignored.

Dickstein plunges into the breach. Assuming that culture is magically whole, he begins his excavation of the roots of Sixties sensibility with an analysis of respectable Fifties fiction, pauses a moment with the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss, drops in on Fifties/Sixties straddlers like Paul Goodman, C. Wright Mills and Herbert Marcuse, and then gets down to his real subject, “The Hidden History of the Sixties,” which turns out to be mostly a doggedly superficial analysis of respectable—or at least avant-garde—Sixties fiction. After polite and awesomely conventional bows to black writers, “new journalism” and “rock,” Dickstein returns to the heart of the matter—“Fiction at the Crossroads”—and finishes off with a notably unrevealing and self-congratulatory coda titled, suitably, “Remembering the Sixties, Surviving the Seventies.”

The chapters on politics, intellectual gurus, blacks, journalism and rock & roll (here, the Beatles, the Stones and Dylan—daring choices) read like padding, either of the book, or of the concept of “the Sixties.” Dickstein doesn’t seem very interested in these subjects; certainly, he has nothing new to say about them. A good part of the chapter on black writers is taken up by the “first-came-Richard Wright-who-was-attacked-by-James Baldwin-who-was-attacked-by-Eldridge Cleaver-who-defended- Richard Wright” story that was explicated in endless magazine articles ten years ago; “rock” fans will be stunned by such pronouncements as, “One of the virtues of rock songs is their frank sexuality, with lyrics and performance that complement the physicality and energy that’s there in the music.” Nothing is related to anything else; every subject is confined in its own chapter. While Dickstein notes that one effect of the Sixties was to break down cultural lines, none are transgressed here.

What Dickstein really cares about is high-class fiction, which he discusses in terms of artistic form and political milieu. It is here that we are to encounter the decisive “texture,” those “formal concerns of the artist” that “reflect the world in intense miniature.” For the Sixties, says Dickstein, this is “the part” that “betrays the whole.” Well, yes, but not in the way Dickstein had in mind. After reading through bits on Delmore Schwartz (considered at great length, apparently as an avatar of something, but I’m not sure what), Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Allen Ginsberg, Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, John Barth, Donald Barthelme and others, I found myself scribbling, “What does this have to do with the Sixties?” on page after page. When fiction in Dickstein’s hands does tell us something about “the Sixties”—and the idea of the Sixties so recedes in his altogether discrete analyses of fiction (or anything else), becomes so dubious and spectral, that it needs quotes—it turns out to be more or less what everyone already knew: the world seemed crazy, the ground was shifting,
paranoia was a rational state of mind. Etc.

Often what Dickstein has to say about a book produces an effect criticism should never have: it diminishes the impact of a work of value rather than enlarging it. Dickstein feels that in terms of its essential form, Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo has more in common with Pynchon than with other novels by black writers (I doubt it, but that’s not the point), but rather than treating Mumbo Jumbo and Pynchon together, which might have revealed something of the “unity” Dickstein takes for granted, Reed is consigned to the ghetto of the chapter on black writers, presumably because he might complicate things were he allowed to run around loose. Dickstein puts a piece of culture in a box so it won’t get away while he looks at it and sees it plain; because he never lets anything out of the box once it’s in, never lets all the pieces clash and bump as one must do once one knows what the pieces are, the Sixties slowly fade away. The final result is to make the Sixties appear presumptuous, which they were; obvious, which they may have been; and tame, which they were not.

If a critic truly believes that “culture is a unified thing” then it is the critic’s task to unify culture through criticism, by an act of will and intelligence. As Pauline Kael and Leslie Fiedler have always done, the critic must draw on every possible resource, heading into territory of which he or she knows next to nothing, taking chances, risking foolish judgments (there is endless banality in Dickstein’s book, but little foolishness), discovering, or simply apprehending, the links (and violent oppositions) between all sorts of music, books, movies, political events, economic upheavals, grand sweeps of history, philosophy, psychology, high culture, popular culture, trash culture and creeping meatballism. One must not only say that the lines between all these things are false and artificial, one must think as if they were.


Hard Feelings, a novel by Don Bredes (Atheneum). In which the difficulties of a likable 16-year-old with (1) a crazed high school bully and (2) sex are presented with great humor and, in the case of (2), appalling accuracy as regards the blind attempts of American teenagers to figure out what goes where, not to mention their blind attempts to get it there. This is not one for the ages, but I had a good time with it.

The Cold Room, a novel by Jeffrey Caine (Knopf). A schizophrenic English teenage girl visits her father in East Germany and crawls into a hole in the wall of her hotel room. Later, to everyone’s regret, she comes out. A disturbing little tale.

Lancelot, a novel by Walker Percy (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Absurd mutterings, which may or may not represent the view of the author, on the general loathsomeness of the human condition, plus a big firestorm of an ending, in which the human condition, as represented by various humans, gets what it may or may not deserve. Paperback rights for this went for $300,000, which says something about the human condition, at least as represented by the book business.

Raymond Chandler Speaking, edited by Dorothy Gardiner and Katherine Sorely Walker (Houghton Mifflin paperback). This superb collection of letters by the great detective novelist (plus essays, notes and the first chapters of the never-completed, last Philip Marlowe mystery, “The Poodle Springs Story”) has been out of print for years. Now it’s in the stores. I’ve raved about it more than once. Buy it.

Jamaica: Babylon on a Thin Wire by Michael Thomas with photographs by Adrian Boot (Schocken paperback). Ordinary photos with a first-rate, evocative text by Thomas, some of whose writing on Jamaica has appeared in Rolling Stone. The emphasis is on the raison d’être of the Rastafarians. Thomas’ new journalism prose is often so slick as to give the impression he’s told you all you need to know when in fact he’s only told you enough to give you a feel for what you might want to find out; still, Thomas can catch an image the way the Wailers can catch a fire—or a bullet. He writes as if he’s as scared of what the Rastas bode for Jamaica as he is attracted by it; that tension gives the book its life. Recommended.

Rolling Stone, April 7, 1977

2 thoughts on “Undercover: Those Fabulous Sixties (04/07/77)

  1. Verrry interesting to me to find Greil Marcus crabbing about that ’70s cliche of calling oneself a “survivor,” as though that was some act of valor rather than just the tired inertia of hanging on. I can’t put my finger on the exact context right here, but sometime in the ’70s, likely in CREEM, Lester Bangs complained about that very same vanity, people claiming that simply surviving the past decade was somehow a kind of distinction. To further muddy the urinal, about that same time Eric Burdon (never one to miss a trendy train) came out with a solo album entitled “Survivor”! I felt great glee at the time watching two of my r’n’r heroes (Bangs and Burdon, of course) contradicting each other.

    I’ve never read the Morris Dickstein book Marcus is reviewing here, but I think he’s probably got it right on the mark, as I have read similar evaluations of the Sixties by shall-we-say-“older” liberals who, despite their basic sympathies toward the decade’s youth culture, just had no first-hand experience what it was actually like to LIVE in that da-glo maelstrom as a young person. Speaking as someone who sur . . . er, was immersed in, the cultural orgasm of 1967 as a 20-year-old, I still recommend Love’s “Forever Changes” album as the closest artistic expression yet of what that moment really felt like: transcendent beauty and lurking terror inseparable.

  2. Richard, I don’t recall a Bangs piece on 70s survivorism (not that I doubt such a thing exists), but Greil himself explored the theme much further in a long piece he did for the Voice in December ’79, “Rock Death in the 1970s: A Sweepstakes,” which, after delving into the survivor aesthetic becomes a lengthy list wherein he ranks all the significant rock deaths of the decade. I take it the piece posted here is but a warmup for that. (Eventually “Rock Death…” may make it on the site, though it is already collected in GM’s punk book, *Ranters & Crowd Pleasers*, aka *In the Fascist Bathroom*.)

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