U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Sixties Counterculture and Intellectual History, or Something is Happening Here, But You Don’t Know What It Is

We’ve been devoting a lot of space around here lately to the Seventies…and rightly so. That decade has recently received an enormous amount of richly deserved historiographical attention and a growing list of excellent works on it is reaching print.

The historiography of the 1960s is a good deal more developed. But there are still major gaps in the literature. And one of them that I find most frustrating involves the counterculture.

I’m currently teaching an undergraduate seminar on the U.S. in the Sixties. This is the second time I’ve offered this course. And while there’s an embarrassment of riches when it comes to secondary works on the New Left, the Great Society, and even conservatism, I’ve had a terrible time finding the right thing to use to teach the counterculture.

Last year, I used Alice Echols’s biography of Janis Joplin, Scars of Sweet Paradise. This is a fine book, but ultimately two weeks on Janis Joplin is really too much.

This year I’m using a combination of primary source readings, music, and film, as well as Natalya Zimmerman’s Counterculture Kaleidoscope. Like Echols, Zimmerman focuses on music in San Francisco in the late ’60s. Though a less good book than the Echols, in certain ways it is better in the undergraduate classroom: it is shorter, it covers more ground by focusing on a variety of musicians, and it has a stronger argument, albeit one that is a tad simplistic. But it’s not very satisfying as an account of the San Francisco scene…let alone the larger counterculture.

Why is there not a stronger, general book on the intellectual and cultural history of the counterculture?*

The counterculture seems to me to have a number of historiographical strikes against it:

First, the counterculture has more enemies than friends…even on the left. Leading figures in the New Left, especially folks associated with the early New Left, often held the counterculture in contempt. And these folks–I’m thinking e.g. of Todd Gitlin–helped frame the historiography of the Sixties. Of course conservatives–and conservative liberals like Joan Didion–have treated the counterculture with an almost apocalyptic sense of horror.

Second, unlike Sixties conservatism (which led to the political successes of the right in later decades) or even the New Left, the counterculture seems to have producd a series of cultural and intellectual dead ends. It was not only quickly commodified. In retrospect it seems to have been always already commodified. Its most obvious cultural legacies–e.g. the rise of seventies New Age thought; jam bands–often make it harder for academics to take it seriously.

Third, the most obviously significant cultural achievements of the counterculture were in the area of music, a subject that most (though by no means all) US historians generally write and think poorly about.

Fourth, chemically altered states of consciousness played an obviously major role in the sixties counterculture and are another area that is difficult to write well about historically.

Of course, I may be missing something here. Perhaps the book I have in mind has, in fact, been written. And if it has, I’m sure it will be revealed (to my eternal embarrassment) in comments.


* There are obviously many fine works of history on particular aspects of the counterculture, from Thomas Frank’s Conquest of Cool to Sean Wilentz’s Dylan in America.

11 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Hi Ben,

    I agree with you very much about the challenge of thinking about the counterculture as serious intellectual history, but then again I’m almost finished with a book about the very topic you mention (tentative title: Everybody Get Together: The Civics of Rock Music and the Making of the Sixties Counterculture…almost there!), so I have reason to obsess over the topic.

    I think Nick Bromell’s book Tomorrow Never Knows: Rock and Psychedelics in the 1960s comes closest to what you are looking for. The book dares to take the phenomenological and epistemological experiences of music and hallucinogenics seriously, and there’s lots there for students to argue with, from the baby-boomer-centrism to Bromell’s provocative thesis about the links between African-American double-consciousness in the early 20th century and postwar white middle-class male youth double-consiousness.

    I also think that Fred Turner’s book From Counterculture to Cyberculture (and related essays) qualifies here as important new work, as does Sam Binkley’s really fascinating post-(Tom) Frank(furt School) study of the new ideologies of countercultural consumerism in Getting Loose (moving a bit into the 1970s here, but in ways that link back to the 60s counterculture).

    Paul Gilroy’s work on Jimi Hendrix as countercultural intellectual continues to fascinate me. And it raises important issues about how, when it comes to the counterculture, we understand who intellectuals were exactly and what constituted intellectual history in the psychedelic swirl of the countercultural milieu.

    Howard Brick’s The Age of Contradiction, an overview of 1960s intellectual history, also has, to my mind, some marvelous passages of interpretation on the counterculture and one of the best interpretations of Thomas Pynchon and the counterculture I’ve ever read. And I think there are a number of good essays in ImagineNation: The Counterculture of the 1960s and 70s.

    John Mcmillian has a new book out about the underground press that I need to read asap. Could have some good stuff in it for intellectual historians, too.

    Finally, in a more political vein, I think Rebecca Klatch’s work on the ideological overlap between the libertarian right and left in the counterculture only grows more important and relevant with each Tea Party “Woodstock” gathering.

    Okay, I will stop bibliographizing here and say that I share your sense that continuing to develop a robust intellectual history of the counterculture is crucial. Particularly as the history of the rise of conservatism moves to center stage, often through the gambit that all has been said and done about radical and liberal history from the 60s, there remains important work to be done.


  2. I love the suggestions from Michael. I just added a few books to my ever-growing USIH bibliography.

    Backing up a bit from the counterculture—in a way that I hope might develop the discussion on that very topic—I am coming to believe that we, as professionals (including me), need to stop talking about “The Sixties.” As I study and teach the period, I’ve noticed that when people/we talk about “The Sixties,” we’re really talking about 1964/65-1975. The Vietnam War, which I believe is one of the central topics of the Sixties, is still a real topic until the fall of Saigon in April 1975. As the members of the Weathermen reflect in *The Weather Underground*, the Vietnam War “made us all a little crazy.”

    With that, a lot of the solid books appearing on the 1970s cover, at least, the semi-maturation of the counterculture in the early 1970s (it’s consumer co-option and spread beyond urban areas and the coasts).

    So maybe what Ben is looking for is a “Rise of the Counterculture Mind” study? – TL

  3. Tim, “Rise of the Counterculture Mind,” I love it! Insert getting high jokes here. But in all seriousness I think you are right. “The Sixties” and the 1960s are not the same thing, though we might go back into that early-mid 60s period to think through the counterculture. I am thinking here of Dave Hickey’s amazing essay “Freaks,” which is a kind of intellectual history of participants in the counterculture; also Alice Echols’s great essay on “Hope and Hype in the Haight” in After Shocks; Robert Cantwell’s work on the folk revival (full disclosure, one of my grad school teachers); and, with a more arty perspective, but important nonetheless, Sally Banes book on Greenwich Village 1963. And finally, a now-old but I think still relevant collection of essays from Social Text, The Sixties Without Apology.

    All in all, though, I am in total agreement. What we mean when we say “the sixties” is, in some way, at the heart of the intellectual history of the counterculture.


  4. Thanks, Michael, for the second set of citations! Good stuff.

    FYI: I went a searching for the Echols essay, here’s the full citation:

    Echols, Alice. “Hope and Hype in Sixties Haight-Ashbury” in *Shaky Ground: The ‘60s and Its Aftershocks*. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

  5. I’ll add my thanks to Michael for all the great reading suggestions (some I’ve not seen and some for which I needed that “oh, right, I never read that” prod).

    But Tim, what happens when we stop talking about “the sixties”? Granted the difficulties with periodization, don’t we need some way to talk about the confluence of events we mean when we talk about the sixties (civil rights, new left, Great Society, counterculture, Vietnam, anti-war, women’s movement etc.) Counterculture is one element (and obviously they bleed together), so to substitute it for “the sixties” seems to come at quite a cost.

    Now, I like “The Rise of the Countercultural Mind” idea, since the “conquest of cool” narrative of countercultural cooptation seems too pat and a bit too simple. A study of the origins of countercultural thinking and practice, of the various avenues it appears in (music, politics, religion, lifestyles, the therapeutic culture, etc.), and of its long term migration into the mainstream (both in the commodification of dissent and in alternative political and lifestyle avenues (environmentalism, localism, etc.) would be great. And an intellectual history of the counterculture could do all this. But I don’t see that taking the place of “the sixties.”

    I also think “the sixties” has teaching use, partially because students (still) come in with a set of associations. Those associations (and they are almost all late sixties early seventies) provide a point of entrée to the whole messy period from 1960 to 1975 and beyond.

    Rob Vanderlan
    (in my first comment here, though I’ve been lurking for the past couple weeks)

  6. Ben,

    Tim turned me on to this post. Have you tried any of these?:

    – Edward Morgan, The Sixties Experience: Hard Lessons About Modern America, 1991.
    – Julie Stephens, Anti-Disciplinary Protest: Sixties Radicalism and Postmodernism, 1998.
    – Mark Hamilton Lytle, America’s Uncivil Wars: The Sixties Era from Elvis to the Fall of Richard Nixon, 2006.
    – Christopher Gair, The American Counterculture, 2007.
    – Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo, Daughters of Aquarius: Women of the Sixties Counterculture, 2009.

    I read most of them recently, I don’t remember Gair too well, it may have been OK. But I think I liked Morgan and Lytle. I read Stephens years ago and liked it from first read. Lemke-Santangelo has a few noticable flaws, but not many works focus eclusively on women, so I give credit for that. I liked Bromell enough to but it. And I’m really looking forward to McMillan’s book. The only other one I can think of about underground press is Abe Peck’s Uncovering the Sixties.

    For Primary sources, any of these?:
    – Delbert Earisman, Hippies in our Midst: The Rebellion Beyond Rebellion, 1968.
    – Edgar Friedenberg, ed., The Anti-American Generation, 1971.
    – Jerry Hopkins, ed., The Hippie Papers: Notes from the Underground Press, 1968.
    – Burton Wolfe, The Hippies, 1968.

    Ron Martin
    Loyola University Chicago

  7. Hi Ron,

    Those are great additions to the ever-growing bibliography. You reminded me how much I really liked Julie Stephens’ book: chock full of intriguing arguments about the politics of the counterculture, particularly the effort to rethink the logics of political discourse through absurdist dada expression (the Diggers’s wooden Frame of Reference; Bob Dylan’s idea to hold a protest with pictures of lemons and apples instead of slogans on the pickets). And if I recall, she has a good chapter on the problems of exoticism in the countercultural curiosity about Eastern spirituality. I think the Imagine Nation essays picked up on many of her themes. It would be very interesting to think through her argument in relation to the Tom Frank conquest of cool argument.

    Those primary sources are, well, groovy!


  8. Thanks, Michael, Rob, and Tim!

    I’ve just signed on to teach this course again next fall, and I look forward to reading many of the items in this terrific bibliography before I choose the readings for v. 3 of the course.

  9. Hello Ben,

    I am a student at Indiana University and have taken a number of courses with Dr. Michael McGerr. He teaches the very popular course, “The Sixties,” once a year. Two weeks of the semester were dedicated to the counter-culture movement, and it was very informative, extremely well-researched, and supplemented with numerous primary-source documents.

    He also teaches “Popular Music in the Making of Modern American,” and spends several weeks teaching the music of the sixties from multiple angles. In order to teach the counter-culture movement in music, Dr. McGerr used the film, “Monterey Pop,” by Director D.A. Pennebaker (You can find the film, in parts, on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ErrgTVQvzpM)

    In any case, Dr. McGerr is very knowledgeable about the sixties and it might be worth your time contacting a colleague that has successfully taught “The Sixties” for many years.

    -Cody J. Foster

  10. Belatedly — Hi Michael! — let me add a hearty endorsement of the collection of essays in IMAGINE NATION: American Counterculture in the 1960s and 1970s (Routledge, 2002). Michael Wm. Doyle, at Ball State University in Muncie IN, is a stellar historian, and his co-author, Peter Braunstein, wrote a great M.A. paper on the Haight-Ashbury at NYU and was a journalist and playwright before flaming out onto America’s Most Wanted List.

    I am a feminist historian of the period, and I love Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo’s work, even ‘tho it beat mine out of the chute. She got some great information from Timothy Miller’s archives at Kansas, and I would add both of his books as possible course inclusions, esp. The Hippies and American Values.

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