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.