1962: The Dawn of Modern Pop Culture

In Camelot and the Cultural Revolution, James Piereson wrote that the enormous gap between the stated ideology of Lee Harvey Oswald, President Kennedy’s communist assassin, and the efforts of liberals to pin the blame on the American right* caused the cognitive dissonance that birthed today’s modern left. In the first volume of The Age of Reagan, Steven Hayward argued that it was the enormous gap between the stated utopian goals of Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s successor (simultaneously winning the moral equivalent of war on poverty and racism; winning another moral equivalent of war, the space race; and winning a real war in Vietnam), and the failure to achieve the majority of those efforts that caused the left to become cynical, angry and disillusioned. (Of course, the root causes proposed by Piereson and Hayward need not be exclusive to each other.)


Similarly, Charles Murray begins his recent book Coming Apart with a flashback to the culture of November 21st, 1963, to remind his readers how much life has changed since the day that JFK was assassinated. But as Terry Teachout writes in a must-read essay in the Wall Street Journal, the culture had already begun to shift before that momentous and tragic day. In retrospect, the changes in the American culture that we would eventually dub, in shorthand form, “the sixties” — more specifically, the late ’60s, even more specifically, 1968 — had already begun forming the year before Kennedy’s death:

Take a second glance at the guest list for Carson’s “Tonight Show” debut and you’ll note the unexpected presence of Mel Brooks, whose raucously, unabashedly vulgar movies would soon help to undermine Hollywood’s long-established sense of the appropriate. Nor was Mr. Brooks the only portent of things to come. Nineteen sixty-two was also the year when Bob Dylan cut his first album. Andy Warhol’s first solo show, an exhibition of Campbell’s Soup cans, opened in Los Angeles in 1962, and Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” opened on Broadway. As dissimilar as these now-venerable objets d’art may seem to us now, they all had in common the iron determination of their creators to break decisively with the earnest, self-confident tone of postwar culture.

Nowhere is that collective break with the past more apparent than in the halting, drunken second-act monologue from “Virginia Woolf” that is spoken by George, a bitter college professor who has seen his youthful dreams of glory come to naught and now hates himself for ever having dreamed them in the first place: “You endeavor to make communicable sense out of natural order, morality out of the unnatural disorder of man’s mind…you make government and art, and realize that they are, must be, both the same…you bring things to the saddest of all points…to the point where there is something to lose…then all at once, through all the music, through all the sensible sounds of men building, attempting, comes the ‘Dies Irae.’ And what is it? What does the trumpet sound? Up yours.”

Yes, George’s monologue sounds unexceptionable today, but nobody had ever talked like that on a Broadway stage in 1962, nor had any American playwright engaged the attention of a popular audience by declaring that the values by which it lived were false. Then, 13 months after “Virginia Woolf” opened, Lee Harvey Oswald shot John F. Kennedy. Two months later, Mr. Dylan released his third album, “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” By then, few Americans were inclined to doubt the truth of his ominous warning that “the line it is drawn / The curse it is cast / The slow one now / Will later be fast.”


As Paul Mirengoff writes at Power Line, “If Teachout is correct about 1962, and I think he is, then we should question the familiar narrative that views baby boomers as the driving force behind the rise of the counterculture”:

Baby boomers were too young to drive cultural change in 1962, nor at that time did Mel Brooks, Edward Albee, and Andy Warhol have much appeal to boomers. Their appeal was to older generations, including portions of the one dubbed “the Greatest.”

Liberal boomers grabbing retroactive credit for pretty much everything — and I mean everything — that occurred in the 1960s (or at the least everything from their perspective that they consider “good”) was the subject of a memorable William Kristol column from 2007:

Q: If the World War II generation was the “greatest generation,” what is the Vietnam War generation?

A: I don’t think the full judgment of history is in yet. There is certainly greatness in the ’60s generation. They changed our attitudes about race in America, which was long overdue.

–Tom Brokaw, interviewed in the November 19 U. S. News & World Report, on his new book, Boom! Voices of the Sixties.

Whoa! The ’60s generation changed our attitudes about race in America? Rosa Parks, Bayard Rustin, and Martin Luther King Jr.–were they from the Vietnam war generation? Earl Warren, Lyndon Baines Johnson, and Hubert Humphrey? For that matter, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, murdered on June 21, 1964, in Mississippi? None of these was a member of the “ ’60s generation.” None was a boomer.

There really was greatness in the “greatest generation.” It fought and won World War II, then came home to achieve widespread prosperity and overcome segregation while seeing the Cold War through to a successful conclusion. But the greatest generation had one flaw, its greatest flaw, you might say: It begat the baby boomers.

The most prominent of the boomers spent their youth scorning those of their compatriots who fought communism, while moralizing and posturing at no cost to themselves. They went on to enjoy the benefits of their parents’ labors, sacrificed little, and produced nothing particularly notable. But the boomers were unparalleled when it came to self-glorification, a talent they began developing as teenagers and have continued to improve up to this day.


As Kristol wrote, liberal boomers were “also good at bamboozling their parents, and members of the ‘silent generation’ like Tom Brokaw, to be overly deferential to them–even to the point of giving them credit for things they didn’t do.”

In a post yesterday titled “America’s Decadent Elite,” Stacy McCain writes that the radical transformation of American postwar culture in the 1950s to the mid-1960s would make a fascinating book — and he’s right. Quoting Robert Bork’s assertion that the Sixties “brought to a crescendo developments in the Fifties and before that most of us had overlooked or misunderstood,” at the apex of his lengthy post, Stacy writes:

Bork’s insight has been stuck in my mind since I first encountered it in the mid-1990s, and the thought of turning it into a book, examining how we went from the Cold War liberalism of Harry Truman to the anti-American radicalism of the 1960s, has been in [my] mind ever since.

What is needed, I think, is not an argumentative polemic, but rather a lively, detailed narrative history of the era, modeled somewhat on the pattern of liberal historian William Manchester’s The Glory and the Dream. The point to be demonstrated is that historical change is not a product of anonymous deterministic forces – trends that are as irresistible as they are impersonal — but rather (a) history results from the ideas and actions of individuals, and (b) the beliefs and choices of leaders have a disproportionate influence on history.

Leaders who make change happen are often not recognized as leaders until after the fact. Prior to 1948, for example, almost no one could have predicted the enormous influence of the work of an Indiana University biology professor named Alfred Kinsey. Nor, for that matter, did anyone prior to 1963 suspect what changes would result from the work of a freelance magazine writer named Betty Friedan. What I have in mind would in some ways be a counterweight to the Left’s class-oriented “social history” and its mechanical, materialistic concepts of change, as well as a rebuttal to the anti-American perspectives of Howard Zinn and other academic leftists.


I found Teachout’s article on 1962 as a touchstone year in popular culture via a post at Ricochet by Emily Esfahani Smith. As I wrote in the comments there (on Friday morning, still numb from the then-breaking story of atrocities committed in Aurora, Colorado), purely coincidentally, over the last couple of weeks, I received a refresher course on how dramatically popular culture had changed from the late ’50s to the early 1970s via a pair of movies that had been playing as part of a local theater’s revival series. Two weeks ago, Nina and I watched Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s book A Clockwork Orange, which was released to theaters in 1971. Last week, it was Alfred Hitchcock and Cary Grant’s North by Northwest from 1959, arguably the summation of both men’s long careers in Hollywood. The West’s postwar cultural confidence was overflowing in the latter film, and was completely eviscerated by the time the Kubrick convinced Warner Brothers to back A Clockwork Orange. And Clockwork would be a warning of even more horrors to come. (So much so that Kubrick had the film banned in England while he was alive, after it inspired death threats and reports of copycat violence during its initial run.)

Incidentally, the year that Burgess wrote the book that inspired Kubrick’s graphic film?


* The more things change


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