“I wanted heaven now” – Remembering the Summer of Love in America’s Time of Trial

How do we celebrate our national origins at one of the lowest points in American history? The cruel and rapacious ruling party betrays the Founders daily, while America’s worst impulses––racism, militarism, nativism, greed and know-nothingness––are not just tolerated by the White House. They are encouraged and inflamed. The shining city on a hill is mudsliding downward into a nightmarish abyss.

Thank God for the many resisters who incarnate the better angels of our nature in the continuing struggle for justice, equality and the common good. They are, in the words of an 1850 Fourth of July oration, “the only visible source of light and heat and repose to the dark and discordant and troubled world.”

Tomorrow I will refresh my own love of country by silencing the news to spend a morning with American writers like Thoreau, Dickinson, Whitman, Muir, and Didion. And maybe it’s a good time to reread Nathaniel Hawthorne’s apocalyptic parable, “Earth’s Holocaust.” A vast crowd gathers on a broad western prairie to build a huge bonfire, into which they begin to throw all the “outworn trumpery” of the Old World. The heraldry of ancient aristocratic families feed the flames, followed by the robes and scepters of royalty. Scaffolds and other symbols of government oppression are tossed in as well. And finally, as the flames rise ever higher, the total body of European literature and philosophy is consumed. “Now,” said the chief celebrant, “we shall get rid of the dead weight of men’s thoughts.”

There are times when the idea of a radical makeover in politics and culture strikes a chord of repressed desire among the children of Adam and Eve––refugees as we are from a lost Eden. Such youthful optimism, such buoyant faith in the new, permeates the political rhetoric of our republic’s first century. “The American Revolution is the wonder and the blessing of the world,” said Daniel Webster. “Its inherent unconquerable force will heave both the ocean and the land, and flame up to heaven…In our day there has been as it were a new creation… The last hopes of mankind…rest with us.”

Fifty years ago, Hawthorne’s bonfire burned anew in the Summer of Love. In the largest mass migration of young people in American history, tens of thousands made their way to San Francisco in search of a new way of being. Some were just running away from home, some were just looking for a party. But many felt a deeper longing.

In a 2007 PBS documentary on the Summer of Love, Claudia King Yunker reflects on her reasons for joining the 1967 westward pilgrimage. As a 23-year-old civil rights worker in Chicago, she had been frustrated by the slow pace of social change. Rumors of a utopia happening now felt like a summons. “I was young,” she says. “I wanted heaven now.” So off she went to seek it in Haight-Ashbury.

Whatever was beautiful, true and good about the dreams of the “Love Generation” did not find an abiding home on this earth. It didn’t even last the summer. But as Yunker remembers fondly forty years later, things like racism, war, and greed “were not acceptable for a few minutes. [This lasted] for just a little short time. But it was really like something that shimmered.”[i]

During the months leading up to the Summer of Love, the mayor of San Francisco, the local police, and Governor Ronald Reagan did their best to put out the shimmer. In October of 1966, Allen Cohen and Michael Bowen, editors of the Oracle newspaper, organized a people’s response to official repression: not a confrontational protest against the powers-that-be, but a celebration manifesting an alternative social vision. The “Love-Pageant Rally,” they said, would “affirm our identity, community and innocence from influence of the fear addiction of the general public.”

Promotional leaflets for the rally featured a “Prophecy of a Declaration of Independence,” and on the eve of Independence Day, 2017, fifty years after the Summer of Love, it makes interesting reading:

When in the flow of human events it becomes necessary for the people to cease to recognize the obsolete social patterns which had isolated man from his consciousness and to create with the youthful energies of the world revolutionary communities to which the two-billion-year-old life process entitles them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind should declare the causes which impel them to this creation.

We hold these experiences to be self-evident, that all is equal, that the creation endows us with certain inalienable rights, that among these are: the freedom of the body, the pursuit of joy, and the expansion of consciousness, and that to secure those rights, we the citizens of the earth declare our love and compassion for all conflicting hate-carrying men and women of the world.[ii]

Related post: July 4th and the Pursuit of Happiness

 

[i] Summer of Love (PBS American Experience DVD: 2007), written, produced and directed by Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco.

[ii] In Charles Perry, The Haight-Ashbury (New York: Wenner Books, 2005), 92-3.

July 4th and the Pursuit of Happiness

Map (Jasper Johns, 1961)

Map (Jasper Johns, 1961)

On July 4, 1776, Thomas Jefferson rose before dawn, recorded the temperature at 6 a.m. (68 degrees), had some tea and biscuits, and made his way to Independence Hall. Sixty-nine years later, Henry David Thoreau chose the day to begin his sojourn at Walden Pond. On July 4, 1863, Lee’s Confederate army began its decisive retreat from Gettysburg, and on the same date in 1895 Katherine Lee Bates published “America the Beautiful”. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stephen Foster, Louis B. Mayer and Obama’s oldest daughter were all born on July 4, and both Jefferson and John Adams died on the 50thth anniversary of the Founders’ Declaration. So what do the rest of us have planned for Independence Day?

It was Adams who predicted that the Fourth would be “celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival” and “solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forth for evermore.”[i] We have more or less fulfilled the externals of Adams’ vision, but the mindfulness with which we keep the feast is subject to question. In 1975, just before the American Bicentennial, a Gallup poll revealed that 28% of Americans were unable to identify what significant event happened in 1776.

What should we remember as a people? Do we create simplifying myths that unite us with some intoxicating blend of nostalgia and amnesia? Sanitizing and depoliticizing the past is a way to reduce conflict, as in the efforts to heal sectional division after the Civil war. But that can leave grievous social ills unaddressed and unhealed. The current debate about the Confederate battle flag shows how deeply embedded such sanitizing mythology can be. Preserving “heritage,” we discover, is a massive process of forgetting where, in Joan Didion’s memorable phrase, “no one is bloodied by history.”[ii]

Some governments try to supervise the formation of collective memory. The late Soviet Union is a notorious example, but there are also more benign forms of cultivating shared cultural identity (mais oui!). But in America, as Michael Kammen has noted, “people forget and remember largely on their own.”[iii] We have no ministry of culture, and national memory is contested without official referees.

But few of us will give much thought to either politics or culture tomorrow. As a radio talk show guy put it in his summary of America’s military mission: “Those guys are fighting so we can have barbecues and drink beer.”[iv] Pursuit of happiness indeed. But as Daniel Webster noted, it has always been so. “The tavern,” he said, “was the headquarters of the Revolution”[v] – a gathering place where ideas were exchanged and debated. In these latter days we have retained the conviviality of the tavern while dispensing with the ideas. The long-winded orations of old-time Fourths are long gone. There will be little thoughtful discussion of liberty and the common good around the barbecue. No radical challenges to tyranny and oppression will be issued. We’ll just enjoy a day off with our families, friends and neighbors as we pursue happiness together. And in a society fraught with so much division and disconnection, being together in peace and play and joy may be as good a way as any to keep the American feast.

One of the moments when I feel community most vividly is after the last fireworks fade to black above our local harbor. All of us who have watched from the beach begin to make our way along a forest path back to the road. It is too dark to see faces, or anything else that distinguishes one from another. We are an egalitarian procession of shadows, walking together. No longer pursuing happiness, we seem to have found it. Being there together in the night, for a few lovely minutes, is the most important fact about us.

The wonder I feel in the holiday’s concluding moment is beautifully expressed in Samuel Hynes’ memoir of his childhood in the 1930s. Although he grew up in a very different America, his description touches on something timeless:

The last rocket is always the best of all – burst after burst, the echoes rebounding, and then another burst just when you think it is all over. And then it is. The families rise slowly in the sudden silence and fold their blankets, and walk home through the dark, still streets, not talking much, purged by the high splendors they have seen, satisfied that another Fourth is over, another summer has been celebrated with a proper hullabaloo.[vi]

[i] Benson Bobrick, Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), 203

[ii] Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 667

[iii] ibid., 700

[iv] Overheard on a Montana roadtrip a few years ago.

[v] Angel in the Whirlwind, 494

[vi] Samuel Hynes, The Growing Seasons: An American Boyhood Before the War (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 111