In an essay in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review, Rachel Donadio offered a useful corrective to the obsession with 1968 on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of that fateful year. It really was fateful, but Donadio is right to point out that much that we associate with “the Sixties” really had its origin in the 1950s. She focuses on 1958–an important year, no doubt, though one could make a case for other years as well (1956, for example, saw the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s preposterous, though immensely influential, poem Howl). “Fifty years ago,” she writes, “Eisenhower was in the White House, the country was in a recession and the American intellectual scene was crackling with energy.” Quite right, though not often acknowledged by those partisans of the Sixties whose paeans to the Purple Decade always seem to begin by running down the 1950s as a culturally and intellectually era distinguished chiefly by sexual repression, Joseph McCarthy, and an unhealthy obsession with Communism. The list Donadio offers is not, to my mind, entirely edifying, but it certainly shows that the 1950s were alive and kicking. Nineteen Fifty-eight, she notes,
the advent of everything from Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and Dr. Seuss’ “Yertle the Turtle” to “Doctor Zhivago” by Boris Pasternak, that year’s Nobel laureate in literature; the first American edition of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita”; Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”; John Kenneth Galbraith’s “Affluent Society”; Philip Roth’s story “Goodbye, Columbus”; and Jack Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums” — not to mention Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape,” Harold Pinter’s “Birthday Party,” Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” and Orson Welles’s “Touch of Evil.” Robert Frank captured the uncertain tenor of the time in his 1958 photography book, “The Americans,” as did Jasper Johns in his 1958 painting “Three Flags,” in which he superimposed three American flags, each smaller than the next, transforming the familiar into the abstract, the iconic into the unsettled.
The good, the bad, and the malevolent, but a far cry from the usual portrait of the 1950s as a braindead wasteland. You cannot step a foot into the literature about the 1960s without being told how “creative,” “idealistic,” and “loving” it was, especially in comparison to the 1950s. In fact, the counterculture of the Sixties represented the triumph of what the art critic Harold Rosenberg famously called the “herd of independent minds.” Its so-called creativity consisted in continually recirculating a small number of radical clichés; its idealism was little more than irresponsible utopianism; and its crusading for “love” was largely a blind for hedonistic self-indulgence.
What Allan Bloom said in comparing American universities in the 1950s to those of the 1960s can easily be generalized to apply to the culture as a whole: “The fifties,” Bloom wrote, “were one of the great periods of the American university,” which had recently benefitted from an enlivening infusion of European talent and “were steeped in the general vision of humane education inspired by Kant and Goethe.” The Sixties, by contrast, “were the period of dogmatic answers and trivial tracts. Not a single book of lasting importance was produced in or around the movement. It was all Norman O. Brown and Charles Reich. This was when the real conformism hit the universities, when opinions about everything from God to the movies became absolutely predictable.”
Donadio is chiefly interested in reminding us of the febrile cultural animation of the late Fifties. What she doesn’t say is, but what we can no see clearly with the wisdom of hindsight, is that the ideas of the Beats contained in ovo nearly all the characteristics we think of as defining the cultural revolution of the Sixties and Seventies. The adolescent longing for liberation from conventional manners and intellectual standards; the polymorphous sexuality; the narcissism; the destructive absorption in drugs; the undercurrent of criminality; the irrationalism; the na‹ve political radicalism and reflexive anti-Americanism; the adulation of pop music as a kind of spiritual weapon; the Romantic elevation of art as an alternative to rather than as an illumination of normal reality; the pseudo-spirituality, especially the spurious infatuation with Eastern religions: in all this and more the Beats provided a vivid glimpse of what was to come.
Indeed, the chief difference between the Beat Generation and the Sixties was the ambient cultural climate: when the Beats first emerged, in the mid-Fifties, the culture still offered some resistance to the poisonous antinomianism the Beats advocated. But by the time the Sixties established themselves, virtually all resistance had been broken down. It was then that the message of the Beats gained mass appeal. Reaction to the Vietnam War probably did more than anything else to enfranchise their antinomianism, though the introduction of the birth-control pill certainly did a great deal to further the cause of the sexual revolution, a prime item on the agenda of the Beats. In short order, the unconventional became the established convention; the perverse was embraced as normal; the unspeakable was broadcast everywhere; the outrageous was met with enthusiastic applause.
In a word, the establishment of the Beat “church” was significant as a chapter in the moral and cultural degradation of our society. Regarded as a literary phenomenon, however, what the Beats produced exists chiefly as a kind of artistic antimatter. It would not be quite right to say that its value is nil, for that might imply an innocuous neutrality. What the Beats have bequeathed us is actively bad, a corrupting as well as a corrupt phenomenon. To borrow an image from the Australian philosopher David Stove, the Beats created a “disaster-area, and not of the merely passive kind, like a bombed building, or an area that has been flooded. It is the active kind, like a badly-leaking nuclear reactor, or an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in cattle.”
I doubt that Donadio would agree with this assessment, but her essay is a salutary reminder 1) that the Sixties did not burst full grown from the head of Timothy Leary in 1968 and 2) the the 1950s was in fact period of great intellectual and cultural ferment.