I decided to publish my write-ups from my comprehensive exam reading fields. I am publishing them *as is.* Thus they represent my thoughts as a new PhD student. They were written between September 2011 and July 2012.  The full collection is accessible here.

1960s and the Counterculture

Robert S. Ellwood, The Sixties Spiritual Awakening: American Religion Moving from Modern to Postmodern (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1994).

Peter Braunstein and Michael William Doyle, Imagine Nation: The American Counterculture of the 1960s and ‘70s (New York: Routledge, 2002).

Gerard J. DeGroot, The Sixties Unplugged: A Kaleidoscopic History of a Disorderly Decade (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008).

Historical scholarship dealing with the 1950s has been dominated in recent years by those scholars who wish to demonstrate that the decade’s experience was not one-dimensional. 1960s’ scholarship has also been aimed at demonstrating that not every individual during the decade was a quirky flower child or an angry activist railing against the system. After all, there were those who had to be active participants in this “system.” Robert Ellwood recognizes the diversity of individual experiences during the 1960s. Some individuals, Ellwood writes, represented a continuation of the older cultural establishment, while others embraced new styles of living. In The Sixties Spiritual Awakening: American Religion Moving from Modern to Postmodern, Ellwood focuses on those individuals that were part of the change because he believes that they present a much more interesting and provocative narrative, a narrative that is best described in terms of the move from modern to postmodern ways of thinking and processing the world. American culture, Ellwood writes, has not been the same since the 1960s. This change is quite apparent when one looks at the modifications that occurred in American formal and informal religious institutions.

Ellwood treats the 1960s as a decade of transition in political and spiritual life, the political aspect of the transition being heavily focused upon in historiography and the spiritual transition wanting for historical coverage. Drawing heavily from structuralists such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, Ellwood looks critically at religious publications from the 1960s and a vast number of both secondary and primary works in order to construct a narrative that deconstructs the intricacies of the shift from modern to postmodern spiritualism. Ellwood argues that while cultural events like Woodstock and political events like the March on Washington may have grabbed the spotlight, the real change was occurring just beneath the surface in the form of a new type of spiritualism. The political importance of the 1960s is often easily dismissed, Ellwood writes, because the decade was followed by the Nixon and Reagan years; however, the changes in American religiosity, though deeply connected to the political atmosphere of the decade, cannot be as easily dismissed and thus provide a crucial link to understanding the enduring impact of the 1960s as a whole. Since the 1960s, Ellwood argues that Americans have rejected traditional religious institutions more and more in exchange for personal autonomy and the ability to choose that religion that best fits one’s personal needs. External religious authorities, such as the Vatican, were no longer treated with unquestioning reverence.

“An era,” Ellwood states, “is a particular conversation, a finite province of discourse conditioned by its specific horizons…every age has a limit or horizon that can be seen as horizon only when it has been transcended.” (10) The years between two eras are transition periods, of which the 1960s is one, Ellwood claims. The 1950s represented the end of the modern era, the apex of modern religiousness, as well as modern politics, economics, and education. The quintessence of modernism was the belief in unity. The early 1960s was driven by a continuance of this modernism coupled with a growing questioning of modernist unity and, in the mid-to-late-1960s, an eventual embracement of postmodernism, which is characterized by the adherence to the concept that there is no universal truth. Postmodernism rejected the metanarratives of the modernist era. Religion bore the brunt of this change from modernism to postmodernism because religious institutions, such as the Catholic Church, and the basis they had provided for historical understanding had laid the groundwork for the modern era. The 1960s broke down the barriers between self and religion by making the entire decade an era of crusade and liturgical activism, Ellwood argues. 1960s was a time during which religious-like symbolism and communalism became mainstream. The 1960s also acted as the last breathe of the dualistically-based concept of a world split between good and evil; by the end of the decade, society and culture had broken down this bifurcation and embraced pluralism.

The 1960s, according to Ellwood, can be divided into four main periods. The first period, 1960-1963, can be referred to as the 1950s under pressure, which began as continued faith in modern progress and ended in a questioning of the elite and move towards greater equality and pluralism. The second period, 1964-1966, Ellwood calls the years of “secular hope.” This period was characterized by the shake-up of conventional beliefs and institutions surrounding race, sex, and the church. The growing youth culture increasingly abandoned traditional hierarchical structures and social roles. The third period is the year 1967, which Ellwood refers to as the year of the avatars, in reference to a mythological Hindu deity, which takes visible form on Earth. 1967 was the height of the countercultural movement, and marked the moved from “spiritual” radicalism, which focused on the self, to “soulful” radicalism, which forced on pluralism. The fourth period from 1968 to 1970 Ellwood refers to as the “bitter years,” during which progressivists became frustrated by the slow rate of change and thus attempted to accelerate this rate of change, only to lose control and have it smothered by the resurgence of Middle American, which felt its cultural underpinnings were under siege.

In Imagine Nation: The American Counterculture of the 1960s and ‘70s, the contributors provide a variety of essays on various factions of the counterculture in order to illustrate the diversity of the movement’s participants and ambitions. The collection’s editors, Peter Braunstein and Michael William Doyle, note that the term counterculture has been largely disembodied from its 1960s actors and instead now tends to be used to refer to a hazy mass of historical actors that were significant solely for their tendency towards cultural dissent. The problem of decontextualizing a term like the “counterculture,” they argue is that it often is then used by those that intend to use it in a negative manner, such as Newt Gingrich’s use of the term in order to describe all that which has caused the social and moral decay of the United States since the 1960s. The term counterculture has its origins in the 1950s, and was used to refer to a sector of the population that was deemed to be socially deviant, or part of the “contraculture.” In historiography, the counterculture has been oversimplified, Braunstein and Doyle contend. It is portrayed to have virtually come out of nowhere and is reduced to a narrative of LSD using, magic bus riding, Summer of Love participants. In reality, they argue, the counterculture was the culmination of postwar discontent that began in the 1950s with the Beat Generation. Braunstein and Doyle agree with Elaine Tyler May’s analysis of the postwar years and emphasize the reassertion of patriarchal social structures and corporate hierarchies. This emphasis on tradition and affluence in the middle and upper-class, white arenas caused outrage in other, various sectors of the populace. The idea of grouping these various sectors into one cohesive counterculture, they write, is ahistorical. The individuals referred to as the counterculture were, instead, “an inherently unstable collection of attitudes, tendencies, postures, gestures, “lifestyles,” ideals, visions, hedonistic pleasures, moralisms, negations, and affirmations.” (10) It is understandable, they comment, that the dominant culture was defensive against this abandonment of normative values. Additionally, much of the archetypal white hippie counterculture was fueled by white, middle-class Americans who enjoyed the level of material comfort necessary to embark on such journeys of indignation. Like Ellwood, Braunstein and Doyle emphasize the counterculture’s embracement of youth and the erasure of the lines between childhood and adulthood. Also like Ellwood, they note that the first phase during the earlier years of the 1960s countercultural movement was driven by dreams of utopianism, only to become more pessimistic and desperate by the end of the decade and into the 1970s.

In “From ‘Consciousness Expansion’ to ‘Consciousness Raising:’ Feminism and the Countercultural Politics of Self,” Debra Michals focuses on the organization, New York Radical Women (NYRW), which represented the younger and more radical segment of the larger women’s movement. Unlike Ellwood, Michals emphasizes a move from individual to communal thinking and togetherness. She discusses the way in which the CR, the group consciousness raising strategy that the organization participated in, enabled women to open up about their personal experiences in order to end their isolation and understand the way in which their own personal problems related to wider social problems. Michals concludes that by sharing with other females, women were able to realize that they were not alone and that their feelings were valid and common, and thus were able to use this realization to fuel a new drive to change the greater gendered atmosphere. In “The White Panthers: ‘Total Assault of Culture,” Jeff A. Hale focuses on the White Panther Party located in Detroit and Ann Arbor, Michigan and their founder, John Alexander Sinclair. The White Panthers, Hale writes, arose out of the cultural avant-garde of the Midwest who rejected popular culture and declared a “’total assault on the culture by any means necessary.” (125) They were known as the White Panthers because they found the expressive and communalist culture of urban African Americans to be attractive, and thus considered themselves to be “white negroes.” Hale traces the way in which the White Panthers became a militaristic, antipolice organization, and states that they offer an obvious example of how countercultural groups evolved into militant political organizations. In “Counterculture Indians and the New Age,” Philip Deloria, like Hale, demonstrates how white counterculture participants took possession of minority culture, in this case that of the Native Americans, and attempted to make it their own. The 1960s represented a time of identity crisis for many white Americans and thus they turned towards Native American culture in order to fill the perceived emptiness of their existence. Native American culture was believed to offer the authenticity of existence that they craved and also offered the kinds of symbols that Ellwood demonstrated were popular amongst the counterculture crowd. However, this form of spiritualism divorced “indianness” from real Native Americans and reduced it to a kind of text that could be captured, commoditized, and sold. In “Gay Gatherings: Reimagining the Counterculture,” Robert McRuer, similarly to Allan Berube and John D’Emilio, portrays the coming out process as a collective experience by looking at four different examples of gay gatherings. In the first example, McRuer looks at the gay liberation movements “Out of the Closets” campaign, which sought to break down the patriarchal structures which caused homosexuals to be isolated. The second example is the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which highlights lesbian efforts to create a separate identity. The third example is the groundswell of support that Harvey Milk enjoyed during his campaign for the Board of City Supervisors in San Francisco in 1977. Lastly, McRuer looks at the development of the disco culture, which represented the melding of African American and gay culture as well as the trend towards communalization. These communities enable gay men and women, he concludes, the space they needed in order to reinvent themselves and their communities.

Braunstein and Doyle note that any effort to create a history of the counterculture is inherently flawed because it inevitably attempts to make a linear account out of the naturally disorganized and disconnected movement. The actual story of the counterculture, they remark, is more like a matrix. “One can’t help wondering what a truly countercultural historiography of the 1960s cultural radicalism would look like,” Braunstein and Doyle write. In The Sixties Unplugged: A Kaleidoscopic History of a Disorderly Decade, Gerard J. DeGroot attempts to create a matrix-type history of not just the countercultural movement, but of the entire decade of the 1960s. The real events of the 1960s, DeGroot argues, have been sullied by time. Instead of being treated on its own terms, the decade has become a kind of Whiggish morality play used to demonstrate how the world went off track or how hope for the future was squandered. “Problems of the present are blamed on myths of the past,” DeGroot states.

Memory, both collective and individual, has filtered the unwanted or unnecessary events of the past in order to create a history that is more useful for the present, thus making the past, in this case the 1960s, into an idea rather than an actual time period. The 1960s has become an ideology defined by people’s faith in the decade’s influence on the present. Believers in this ideology react negatively towards anyone who dares claim that the Sixties were anything than what they remember it to be. The Sixties has become a sacred experience that can be owned. DeGroot seeks to challenge this sacredness and the tendency for people, including historians, to ignore those events that took place during the decade that do not fit into their personal vision of the past. In The Sixties Unplugged, DeGroot states that he is presenting the history of a decade rather than an idea. “Cast aside the rose-tinted spectacles,” he writes, “and we see mindless mayhem, shallow commercialism, and unbridled cruelty.” (2)

Like Ellwood, DeGroot notes that much of what was preached in the 1960s did not survive the decade, which is why many tend to act so sentimental towards it. DeGroot states that he is not trying to claim that the 1960s were not important, but rather, that the decade was important for different reasons than popularly believed. Revolution was never the objective of the Sixties, DeGroot contends, because even the idealist dreamers were afraid of breaking down the status quo. The concept of the 1960s as a period of revolution, as Braunstein and Doyle also noted, has been created by those in later years who have needed a scapegoat for current societal problems. Instead of revolution, DeGroot argues that liberalism actually went into decline during the 1960s. The Sixties, like any decade, was a time period of diverse occurrences. Any congruency that the decade may seem to have has been the product of scholars and analysts who have attempted to make a coherent narrative out of the era in order to explicitly or implicitly serve an idealist agenda. In The Sixties Unplugged, DeGroot attempts to provide a more accurate portrayal of the 1960s by rejecting this academic drive towards coherence. The events of the 1960s were intrinsically incoherent. In order to illustrate this incoherence DeGroot provides a chronological “tour” of the decade made up of basically random essays, the relation between which is only that they all took place during the 1960s. DeGroot seeks to reinstate the omissions that have made the history of the 1960s heretofore reductive and misleading. DeGroot’s essays deal with the well-known historical occurrences, such as the various events of the Civil Rights movement, and the less-well-known events, such as the importance of mod fashion and the activism of Cesar Chavez. DeGroot also seeks to demonstrate that the Sixties did not occur solely in the United States, but was made up of events that occurred all over the world. DeGroot’s bold concept comes together better than one might expect and would serve well as a textbook for an undergraduate course because it gives an introductory explanation of an impressively wide range of topics. However, DeGroot’s account makes one wonder what would happen to the historical profession if others followed suit by releasing time period-based works with little to no overarching framework. Piecing together random essays seems to be a suspiciously easy way to publish a book.

Published by Jessica M. DeWitt

Dr. Jessica M. DeWitt is an environmental historian of Canada and the United States. She is passionate about the use of digital technologies to bridge the gap between the public and researchers. In addition to her community and professional work, she offers various editing and social media consultancy services.

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