I GRADUATED FROM COLLEGE in 1970, and that was not a good vantage point from which to pronounce a generous judgement on the '60s. Too many hopes of the early part of the decade had fallen victim to the events of its latter part -- the dream of civil rights shattered by riots and backlash, the dream of a Great Society shattered by the war in Asia, the dream of student idealism shattered by dogmatism and violence. It was easy, in 1970, to take for granted the concern for the plight of downtrodden blacks and Vietnamese that so marked the political activism of the '60s and focus instead on the viciousness of the totalitarian idealogues who were increasingly dominating protests and on the destructiveness lurking the the tendencies within the "youth culture."
If the late '60s will be remembered for rampant radicallism, the late '70s may be remembered for rampant reaction. The poor liberal in the middle, upset with the excesses of the late '70s, might be tempted to look back at the '60s with nostalgia, ignoring the excesses of that era.
Milton Viorst's engaged yet judicious account of the '60, Fire in the Streets, edges the reader away both from excessive censure and nostalgia. Viorst's account proceeds as a history of each year of the decade, focusing on one person chosen to exemplify the year: for example, civil rights activist John Lewis and the lunch counter sitins for 1960, Clark Kerr and the Berkeley "free speech movement," for 1964.
Viorst has two chapters at the beginning on pre-'60s sources for the important currents of the decade. They are appropriately selected to represent the decade's two dominant strands -- political protest and cultural radicalism. The first chapter deals with the Montgomery bus boycott and the first stirrings of the civil rights movement in the South. While the NAACP was pursuing cases at a national level through the courts during the '50s, their chapters in the South were, by their very existence, providing hope and dignity in a hostile white world. Viorst, reportong on an interview with Edgar Daniel Nixon, who headed the NAACP chapter in Montgomery at the time, notes that Nixon "offered no claim that the NAACP made much of an improvement in the life of Montgomery blacks" in the years before the 1955 bus boycott, but that "the simple act of paying $1 in dues was commitment to a cause," which helped build a sense of solidarity within the black community and burst forth at the time of the boycott in 1955.
The other indroductory chapter centers on Allen Ginsburg, who, it develops, went to the same high school with Viorst in Paterson, New Jersey. At the time, Ginsburg was "one of the serious students, neatly dressed and wearing horn-rimmed glasses, with a reputation for brilliance." But Ginsburg's mother went insane -- and died in a mental hospital. And Ginsburg was a homosexual. Both these facts predisposed Ginsburg to a separation from "straight" society. Ginsburg wandered around aimlessly from place to place, finally arriving in San Francisco. Viorst reports that Ginsburg then "still had enough ambivalence about a career to get a job as a market researcher, which he kept for a whole year." But he picked up an adibing interest in Zen and fascination with black-leathered motorcycle gangs -- and wrote the long poem Howl, published in 1957. Ginsburg attracted national attention because the San Francisco authorities prosecuted the publisher (Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Books) for publishing obscenity. Howl became a best-seller. Meanwhile -- Viorst is justified, I think, in placing them together -- Elvis Presley had appeared, with a rebellious sexual music, and James Dean had, like a shotting star, briefly shined in the firmament. Ginsburg, Presley and Dean presented a promise of liberation from stifling, mundane, routine, inhibited life-styles.
If the '60s soured, it was because the people who constituted its promise betrayed the hopes riding on them and became -- instead of people whom other Americans could admire for their idealism and their courage -- objects of hatred and fear. And justifiable so. An America ruled by the leadership of the Students for a Democratic Society, as that organization had developed ideologically by the late '60s, would have been an America transormed into a brutal communist dictatorship -- hardly an attractive solution to the country's social problems. An America dominated by adherents of the youth culture of the late '60s would be one where production ground to a halt and many values that have been found over the years to give people a needed sense of anchoring and stability would have vanished. An America under the sway of riots and violence, black and white, was an America that could not endure. To be sure, the madness of Vietnam contributed importantly to the madness of the late '60s. But it by no means condones the excesses and the evils.
Viorst recognizes the deterioration of the decade by dividing his book into sections entitled "The Creation" and "The Disintegration." He also is as skilled in evoking vignettes illustrating the disintegration as he is evoking the most of the promise of the creation. He recounts how Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman insouciantly allowed an undercover cop dressed up as a motorcyclist in a black T-shirt and helmet to infiltrate their ranks as their bodyguard; Rubin recounted to Viorst later that they thought the white working class was going to become revolutionary and saw the cop as "a genuine biker who's been radicalized." Viorst also reminds us that a Los Angeles underground paper named Charled Manson "Man of the Year". and that Jerry Rubin told an audience that "unless you're prepared to kill your parents, you're not ready to change this country."
Fire in the Streets has some minor flaws. Occasionally, he gets his sense of timing and his use of language a bit off: he describes people as being part of the "counter-culture" in a period before the term was invented and he talks about the fading of the "flower children" at a time (1967) when they were still blooming. More importantly, the book seems to underplay the war in Vietnam a bit and also give short shrift to the mainstream protest movement of the late '60s, which continued to be important even as the extremist protest movement grew. But, overall, Viorst's history is one that will be read with both profit and enjoyment by those who wish to relive the decade or to live it for the first time.
The same cannot he said for Toby Thompson's The '60s Report which plays on that most popular of gossip themes, "where are they now?" I have no objection to this type of report when it involves interesting people or if it is illuminating. But a typical figure in this book is someone who went to prep school in the late '50s (often the one in Washington that Thompson himself attended) and who identified with juvenile delinguents.
The '60s Report, is written very much from the perspective of the '70s. It has been widely commented that one of the changes that occurred in the '70s was that the "liberated" lifestyles and movements for social change of the '60s lost their political content and became instead a cult of personal pleasure and "self-development." Thompson proclaims at the beginning of his book that his passions through both the '60s and '70s were "sex, cars, music, beer." Now, it is certainly true that for many young people the "liberation" of the '60s consisted only of free sex, drugs, and rock music. But that was not the whole picture -- and it is an insult to what was positive about the '60s to ignore completely the strivings for justice for the poor and the oppressed. Interviews with political dissenters that do appear in Thompson's book degeneate into the extremely boring account of their sex lives that pockmark the entire volume. And blacks appear in the book mainly as people who, through their music and lack of inhibitions, serve as models for upper-class hoodlums manques such as Thompson's characters and, apparently, Thompson himself.
The beginning of the 1980s invites ruminations on the comparison between the '70s and the '60s. Some of the better sides of the '60s got preserved in the '70s. The freeing up of life-styles, minus the parasitic and nhilistic elements so prevalent in the late '60s, is a permanent contribution of the '60s to our culture. The social and political concerns have left an enduring legacy in the form of necessary government programs to aid the poor, protect the environment, and improve the health and safety of the American people. And the black awakening has produced a transformation from the situation a mere 20 years ago when blacks were largely absent from prestigious universities, from television and from important political position. Yet these advances were partly dissipated by the '70s. The freer life-styles become self-indulgent when the pursuit of jogging and Jacuzzis replace idealism and social concern. The legislative advances have been blunted by a skillful counteroffensive by those whose traditional privileges the new laws challenged. And the undoubted advances blacks have made have allowed many to close their eyes to the enormous gaps that remain. The question for the '80s is whether the plight of the less fortunate can again move to the center of our national political debate, can again move to the center of our national political stage. CAPTION: Picture 1, Boston Common, 1969. From "The Angry Decade: The Sixties," by Paul Sann (Crown, $14.95)