U.S. Intellectual History Blog

There Is No Power in Flowers (or, Hey, Let Me in on That Summer of Love Roundtable) (Guest Post by Anthony Chaney)

[Editor’s Note: This is the second of six guest posts from Anthony Chaney that will be appearing every other Saturday. You can find the first of these posts here. This week’s post adds to the discussion of the Summer of Love, which has been the focus of a Roundtable at the blog this week. — Ben Alpers]

(photo by Mathias Degen)

Emmett Grogan called it “the love hoax.” He was referring to the way a group of Haight-Ashbury business interests were branding the local phenomenon of 1967. The group of scenester-merchants called itself HIP, the Haight Independent Proprietors, and framing the oncoming summer as the “Summer of Love” would be a marketing master stroke. Big-hearted but intensely competitive, Grogan was annoyed at how HIP and others had co-opted the ideas of his organization, the San Francisco Diggers. Even the procedure known as “tie-dye,” to hear Grogan tell it, had originally come from the Diggers. It had been a creative solution some of the Digger ‘old ladies’ had come up with to solve a concrete problem. Now HIP was using it to promote their pop-up head shops and mimeographed weeklies. The Diggers were partly a troupe of agit-prop street artists and partly a community service organization. One of the Diggers’ most ingenious tactics of subversion was to place goods and services in typically commercial contexts and then offer them to the public for “free.” Food, clothing, health care. Experiences. “It’s free because it’s yours,” was the Diggers’ pithy phrase. That HIP could make a buck off the concept of free must have been particularly galling to Grogan.

Another way to say this would be to say that Grogan foresaw in a moment how his and his cohort’s critique of the hegemony would be cannibalized by that very hegemony. Sears and J.C. Penny would be selling striped bell bottoms in no time.

Grogan was too harsh. The members of HIP were as worried as he was about becoming victims of their own success. The Human Be-In in January had been a scene peak—both high energy and relatively hassle-free. By presenting Haight-Ashbury to mainstream society in a positive light, the Human Be-In was also a public relations coup. The consequence, however, was only to accelerate the number of youth who were moving by the week to the neighborhood. Between fifty and two-hundred thousand newcomers were expected after Memorial Day and the closing of the school year. Many would be runaways, arriving with nothing; many would wind up street beggars or acid casualties. The Haight had already surpassed its carrying capacity. The Summer of Love was, therefore, HIP’s way to harness some of the Be-In energy and to keep the mood upbeat.

By charging HIP with hucksterism, Grogan may have been dabbling in a bit of projection. He was an interesting person—the sort of LSD enthusiast who saw himself as a realist. (See his autobiography, Ringolevio.) From Grogan’s perspective, the members of HIP were cynics because they were in it for profit. At the same time, someone like Timothy Leary, someone who provided the intellectual rationale for the love hoax, was a “cloud-dweller.” The hippies, too, were “cloud-dwellers” to Grogan, gullible naifs, “experimenting with hunger.”

Grogan was not the only one to look askance on the hippies. Like the Beats before them, they were easy to make fun of. Their clothes and hair styles, their slang terms and fuzzy pronouncements. Their embarrassing sincerity and utopianism. (See Michael J. Kramer on Frank Zappa and the Freaks.) Reagan of course mocked them, but I’m talking about persons one would expect to be more favorable. In his featured address to the Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation, going on in London in July, Herbert Marcuse took pains to point out to his audience—many of them young Americans–that there was no actual power in flowers. Todd Gitlin, a leader of the righteous and sober Students for a Democratic Society, was not sympathetic with the social program of the self-styled spiritual generation. He summed up the hippies’ fatal flaw and delivered it in his great book, The Sixties: “Love should be ashamed when it was founded on privilege.”

Yet love as a concept was in the movement’s DNA. The Berkeley Barb described the Be-In as “the union of love and activism.” The San Francisco Oracle championed “a Renaissance of compassion, awareness and love in the Revolution of the unity of all mankind.” These folks were interested in religious matters, and according to Leary’s colleague Richard Albert, “the God of the New Age was Love.” In his week-by-week history of the Haight between 1965 and 1968 (where many of these quotes come from), Charles Perry tells of a sit-down with the local police, called by scene leaders early on. Listening to them articulate their hopes and concerns, the department head himself seemed calmed. These concerned if odd-looking young people struck him, he said, as “the love generation.” It was a sobriquet friendlier than Grogan’s.

But I’d like to go back to Todd Gitlin’s verdict. “Love should be ashamed when it was founded on privilege.” Clearly, this was Gitlin’s way of making a case for the hard work of rigorous analysis and political organization. He was agreeing with Grogan and Marcuse. There was no power in flowers. To think otherwise was cloud-dwelling. But we might raise another question: what about love not founded on privilege?

Very few spoke publically about love more often than did Martin Luther King, Jr. In 2016, Cornell West edited a collection of King’s writings, sermons, and speeches. The volume was meant to disturb King’s image as a bland icon and to emphasize his economic and religious radicalism. The works West chose for The Radical King are heavily weighted to the final years of King’s life, 1967 and 1968. In the spring of 1967 King came out against the Vietnam War. But throughout the year, he was particularly engaged with a challenge to non-violence from voices within the movement such as Stokely Carmichael’s. King’s book Where Do We Go from Here? is a record of that engagement.

To defend nonviolence, King defended the deeper, underlying concept of love as a spiritual principle. “We’ve got to get this right,” he told a group of SCLC leaders in August of 1967, after working and re-working his language about love throughout the year. Many of his articulations were structured around the binary of love and power. Love was “identified as a resignation of power, and power with a denial of love.” But it was wrong, King argued, to see love and power as opposed. Rather, he aimed for a merger. “What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.” He heard the arguments of the militants. He granted the points made by the postcolonial critiques. Economic structures required transformation and rebuilding, as did the psyches of the colonized and the poor. Yet King’s still believed in nonviolence as “a tactical program” because it was grounded in his theology. “I have decided,” King said, “to stick with love.”

King’s difficulties in making his case for love and his inability to keep the movement from fragmenting may have less to do with sound theology than with his underlying semiotic. “When I speak of love, I am speaking of a force,” King said in a sermon earlier in the year. In one of his favorite constructions, he described love as the “key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality.” The basic metaphor is mechanistic. The new physics were almost a century old, but King still lived in a Newtonian universe in which linear force and impact were the “ultimate reality.” Power has the advantage in the binary of love and power. Love is the junior partner in that binary, so to speak, and has to rise and merge with power to achieve some of the authority power already enjoys. This is still our underlying semiotic. There is still no power in flowers. Until we can conceive of love as totally divorced from a binary with power–apart from force, from a means to an end, from getting something done in the world –we may be stuck no less than King was. But that’s just my own interpretive fixation.

My main point has to do with HIP and their preemptive branding. I suggested that “Summer of Love” was successful marketing, and what I meant was successful in the long term. It’s hard to say whether the brand worked to ward off the neighborhood’s rising paranoia as the influx of newcomers continued. With an over-numbered, under-resourced population, things got tense on the street. It turned out meth was a better drug than LSD for negotiating the daily grind, and then heroin was required for numbing the crash that followed the meth. These were new economies of addiction, less forgiving than the old ones. Grogan himself succumbed. In the long term, however, the Summer of Love as branding brought forth a set of ideas and images that have persisted. It has claimed, to a large degree, the whole of the Haight-Ashbury phenomenon and much of the greater bohemian resurgence. Its ideas and images are relatively shallow and harmless, still easy to make fun of, still more about style than substance. In the mainstream imagination, the phrase has claimed not only the summer of 1967 but has pushed many of the other events of that momentous season into the background: race-rioting in Newark, Detroit, and other cities; the Six-Day War; the Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation in London; court cases legalizing mixed-race marriage in the US and homosexuality in England; Vietnam Summer. It claims more territory, too, than does King’s intellectual struggle with the concept of love.

As we near the end of the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, and draw nearer to the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination, we might note once again what was lost in the latter event. Surely today there are scholars of Affect Studies thinking hard of ways to give love its due. In the post-Trump manifestos associated with Tikkun Magazine, love is given a central place in political strategy in a way similar to King’s. But I think we can say with confidence that there is no figure as influential as King in our public life today who can speak the way he did about love. He was able to do what those of us with more secular minds have trouble doing, to see love as something not only real but integral to the material structure of the world. When King spoke of love, he wasn’t speaking metaphorically. He wasn’t being merely rhetorical. King believed that radical love was a way of knowing the world that had actual influence in the world. Recently on S-USIH’s Facebook page, an accomplished and highly-regarded scholar posted a brief and powerful response to a challenge from the right for the left to state its principles. Among the principles this scholar stated was that “human rights are practicable if not verifiable.” I support this sentiment. But for King human rights were both practicable and verifiable due to his theology of love.

Let me end with a couple of random points.

  1. These arguments over the meaning of love had some place in the Houseboat Summit, a long conversation between Alan Ginsberg, Allan Watts, Gary Snyder, and Timothy Leary in February of 1967. Kevin Mitchell Mercer wrote about the Houseboat Summit last week as part of the Summer of Love Roundtable. Thank you, Kevin, for wading into this text, which was printed in the Oracle in a way as to be practically unreadable. Lots and lots of words, in a tiny font size, sometimes white on black, sometimes black on white, and with the margins curved on some of the pages to form interesting shapes. Ginsberg, Snyder, and Watts were a little hard on Leary that day. They ganged up on the arriviste a bit, perhaps deservedly so.
  2. The Houseboat Summit was also part of the debate on the nature of revolution that I touched on in my last post. It was the same old contest between love and power. That debate, I wrote, was “fraught and agonized,” and in response @HartmanAndrew tweeted, “as always.” That made me think of the recent, brilliant album by Childish Gambino called Awaken, My Love. Here the debate on the nature of revolution–in direct association with Black Lives Matter–is played out in a way that puts emotional data to the fore. Varieties of love that philosophers and theologians parse with precision—carnal love and the love consciousness that inspires political activism—are placed along a love continuum. Both, especially the first, can be blissful. The singers long to lose themselves in it. Yet the conscious component of love consciousness—the socio-cultural part, the being “woke”—can make those who happen to possess black bodies very paranoid, indeed. One of this album’s songs, “Redbone,” figures prominently in the film, Get Out, and for good reason. A highly recommended listen.

15 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andrew, I don;t know, do you think myth building is a more generous way to put it ? I think they believed in their “product” and were trying to make good on that belief …

    • Sorry if this seems rushed and superficial. It’s because of the circumstances under which it was written and I had to wing it more than I would have liked. So my apologies and I hope that some of my meaning gets through.

      I think we have to move beyond the conventional way of viewing the Summer of Love era by giving ourselves over to naked lunch. This is a term coined by Jack Kerouac and explained by Williams Burroughs when he used it as the title of one of his novels. Burroughs said: “The title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” Because naked lunch delivers us to that point where we get to the root of something, it is truly a radical phenomenon.

      Upon being viewed through the lens of naked lunch, the Summer of Love appears much different than we had previously believed it to be. It has become a point of demarcation separating two separate and mutually exclusive historical realities or (generations?) instead of a point on a straight line or historical continuum. The pre- and post-Summer of Love countercultures are so strikingly different that the two demand to be seen as two separate and mutually exclusive realities that comprise, ironically, a generational split within the counterculture itself.

      This generational split occurred between those individuals who were born during or immediately before World War II and the baby boomers. I identify those who were pre-baby boom as the builders or creators of a culture for themselves – though it was no one’s intention to do so. People were doing what they were doing for its own sake and what they felt moved to do. (For an interesting exercise when you have the time, look up the birthdays of the musicians who emerged during this time, throw in a Dylan or a Beatle or two, and you will be amazed, I promise you.)

      It is a misnomer I believe, to see the baby boomers as creators in this regard. The baby boomers, as they did after and during the Summer of Love, contribute all but nothing. Instead they were a market, consumers. To include the boomers with the pre-war people was to give them credit they didn’t deserve and to do the opposite was to insult the builders.

      The most remarkable thing in looking back at the culture these people built was that it all happened without a plan (though not without inspiration). While it’s true that certain individuals ultimately would attempt to influence the direction the “movement” would take, in the beginning it was more a matter of individually similar visions somehow finding each other and forming some sort of bond or connection. It was spontaneous — a charismatic-visceral sort of experience. There was a sense that these people were inventing it as they went along without any thought given to really inventing anything or thoughts of making any more money than they needed to get by. They were just doing it, whatever it was — music, painting, light shows, film, writing, or simply being. As a result, people did things solely for their own sake and enjoyment (and their friends’ as well) with little or no eye to the marketplace.

      This is not to say that there were not outward manifestations, which marked someone as a member of the counterculture. These things existed, to be certain, and usually took the form of an appreciation for rock music and a propensity for psychedelic drugs, light shows, long hair, and Eastern philosophy. It also was there in a sense of naturalness in personal appearance and dress, a certain playfulness toward life, an appreciation of nature and its interconnectedness, and a philosophy that stressed the innate goodness and divinity of man, among a host of other things. One must keep in mind, however, that while these various things may provide windows into the soul they are in the end only external expressions of an inward reality and not the soul itself.

      Ultimately, this fact was either forgotten, became obscured, or disappeared as people became conscious of it and began “looking” for it. Consequently, at some point in the mid to late 1960s, the outward signs of membership in the counterculture somehow became more important than the substance of the culture itself; the culture had become codified and imitative. One now had to look a certain way, speak a certain way, be a certain age, listen to certain music, and take certain drugs to “belong.” But this was to miss the point for the counterculture initially was not about a particular sound or look; rather it was about a certain feeling. Not surprisingly, it then followed that the counterculture came to be “marketed” to the youthful masses.

      Consequently, the content or quality of one’s soul seemingly was no longer of paramount importance. One no longer had to earn admission, now one could buy it. In this instant, the culture’s demise was guaranteed.

      Enter stage left the boomers.

      One more thing: To my way of thinking, the counterculture was first and foremost an artistic phenomenon and should be dealt with as such. It was a time when the nature and forms of literature changed – think electrified rock, Acid Tests, light shows, etc. It can no longer be understood by using the old methods. We must develop new ways of communicating about it that are equivalent to it. We shouldn’t make of it an anachronism.

      Doing this with an experiential reality such as poetry is difficult if not impossible. But we owe it to the work.

      Anyone up for another naked lunch?

      • I am glad, if always a bit nervous what will happen, to go on a journey into the Burroughsian Interzone, whatever meal awaits.

        This reading of the difference between those born between, say 1930-1945 and those born right after the war put me in mind of Dave Hickey’s amazing essay, Freaks. Were those born in the late 30s/early 40s key here? As Ken Kesey remarked, they were too young to be Beats, too old to be hippies. They called themselves freaks (hippie was a term of insult, according to interviewees in Alice Echols’s “Hope and Hype in the Haight” essay) and they came of age during the late 50s and early 60s, as Ike (both Eisenhower and Turner, which is to say a sort of dialectic between anticommunist Cold War liberal consensus and the explosive roar of rock and roll) tumbled into the New Frontier of JFK.

        Freaks in their own minds; in the wider mass society, they were beatniks. They do seem to be the key group here in terms of inventing a counterculture during the mid-1960s.

        Then, what if, following David Farber’s recent thinking, or the work of Sam Binkley, we push into the 1970s more, or new study by Josh Davis? There you see a real effort to achieve what Farber calls “right livelihood” in the afterblast of the counterculture. Or what Binkley, more critically, calls the post-countercultural goal among middle-class to adopt looser, more potentially liberating modes of labor. On the whole, this might have been a more affluent effort: the food co-op movement, new kinds of educational institutions, small-scale tech (which as Fred Turner maps out, ironically fed into big-time Silicon Valley by the 80s), a broader interest in new kinds of leisure activities and hobbies such as backpacking, all with a kind of spiritual bent to them), the flourishing of bookstores and small presses in many different communities, and so on.

        Between the mid 60s and 1970s, what happened? Something. But we don’t quite know what it is, do we? Maybe it was the dream of achieving some kind of paradoxical mass bohemia or pop bohemia. The belief that capitalist commodification might lead to a conquest of cool, as Tom Frank put it, or to repressive desublimation, to use Marcuse’s provocative concept, but it also might lead from cultural experiences of emancipation in leisure time to political movements in all times. As Ellen Willis wrote, “the history of the sixties strongly suggests that the impulse to buy a new car and tool down the freeway with the radio blasting rock and roll is not unconnected to the impulse to fuck outside marriage, get high, stand up to men or white people or bosses, join dissident movements.” It’s just that we still struggle to unravel her double negative in that quotation. How were these things “not unconnected”?

      • The Haight is just a place; the ’60s was a spirit.
        – Ken Kesey

        Freaks or heads early on. Later hippies from Caen. Kerouac still the best with calling himself the bippie in the middle.

        http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1969/09/28/page/222/article/after-me-the-deluge pp. 20-23.

        You ask; “Were those born in the late 30s/early 40s key here?” If here is San
        Francisco/San Francisco State/Haight-Ashbury, the answer is a resounding yes. Just consider this small sample of birthdays and accomplishments for mostly musicians and selected others:

        Jerry Garcia (b. 1942)
        Co-Founder of Grateful Dead

        Phil Lesh (b. 1940)
        Bass player for Grateful Dead

        Ken Kesey (b. 1935)
        Author (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Sometimes a Great Notion), Merry Pranksters, Acid Test

        Jorma Kaukonen (b. 1940)
        Guitarist Jefferson Airplane

        Paul Kantner (b. 1940)
        Jefferson Airplane vocalist and guitarist

        Grace Slick (b. 1939)
        Vocalist for the Great Society and Jefferson Airplane

        Marty Balin (b. 1942)
        Vocalist for Jefferson Airplane

        Bob Weir (b. 1947
        Guitarist for Grateful Dead

        Signe Anderson (b.1941)
        Jefferson Airplane Vocalist

        Bob Dylan (b. 1941)
        The Man

        Chet Helms (b.1942)
        Ballroom entrepreneur, brought Janis to San Francisco

        Janis Joplin (b. 1943)
        Vocalist, Big Brother and the Holding Company

        John Cipollina (b.1941)
        Guitarist, Quicksilver Messenger Service

        Hunter Thompson (b. 1937)
        Author (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hell’s Angels, articles on hippies for NYT Magazine and Collier’s Encyclopedia.)

        Gary Duncan (b.1946)
        Guitarist Quicksilver Messenger Service

        Mike Wilhelm (b. 1941)
        Guitarist, The Charlatans

        Darby Slick (b. 1944)
        Guitarist, the Great Society, wrote Someone (later changed to Somebody) to Love
        Family Dog Dances

        Tribute to Dr. Strange, October 6, 1965
        Tribute Sparkle, October 24, 1965
        Tribute to Ming the Merciless, November 6, 1965

        The Seed , first psychedelic concert poster, produced by two members of the Charlatans

        Trips Festival, January 21–23, 1966.

        So why them?

        Maybe it was the fluoride in the water or the radioactive dust in the atmosphere or the appearance of Elvis. Who knows. Whatever it was it sure was missing in the boomers.

        By JFK, Buddy Holly was dead, James Dead was dead, and Elvis neutered, Chuck Berry wary, Little Richard a minister. For a great listen to the music of the 50s check out Loud, Fast & Out Of Control: The Wild Sounds of ’50s Rock. As wild as some of the music was it still wasn’t an explosive roar. That came later with the Byrds, etc. (and acid and better electronics. Someone once said the 60s would not have been possible without the jet engine and the birth control pill. Can’t argue with him.) You did have a lot of Frankies , and assorted other bland and flaccid artists
        I’m not sure they looked at it as a counterculture. They were just doing what they wanted to and were moved to do for its own sake. As Ken Kesey put it: “We were doing things so fast there was no time for deliberation. No spin. No selling soap. just doing it.”
        Other assorted and same and similar thoughts that I found n an old thumb drive will be in a second post. Read at your own peril.

      • One of the major impediments to our understanding of what – for better or worse – came to be called the “counterculture” exists in the way images and symbols have overridden fact and substance in our perception of that phenomenon. Given such a faulty foundation, our attempts to build true and lasting analyses and evaluations are difficult to realize.

        This creates a faulty foundation that prevents us from reaching an understanding of the phenomenon. As a result, when we consider the subject, we are confronted with a false picture of reality that takes precedence and is perpetuated over the truth.

        There are several myths about the counterculture that I would like to dispel.
        First, let’s tackle the conventional wisdom that the baby boomers built the counterculture. In truth, they had nothing to do with the building, creation or development of anything – artistic, cultural, etc., – in the 1960s connected with something that has come to be called the “counterculture.” If you don’t believe me you can look it up; check the birthdays.

        People – musicians, writers, light show artists, poster artists, etc. – born before or during World War II, with very few exceptions, did all the creative and meaningful work, and they did it early before there were any labels or dogma for what they were doing.

        Having put that misperception out of its misery, let’s move on to the myth of the monolithic “counterculture.” This is a view that maintains that there was one singular phenomenon that came to be called the counterculture that began sometime in the middish 1960s and ended in the early 1970s. that critical position also holds that what was there at the end was only the beginning grown larger.

        In point of fact, there were several countercultures during that period each of which different enough from predecessors and followers that they continued separate entities and not just parts of a whole.
        In reality what was there at the end bore only a superficial resemblance to what had been there at the start. The form was still present but the substance was gone. The lesson to be learned here is not to visit the sins of the children upon the fathers and mothers. That isn’t justified.

        In the beginning (1964-65) people such as Ken Kesey, Ken Babbs, Chet Helms, the Pranksters and the members of the Charlatans, the Family Dog, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Big Brother, Quicksilver Messenger Service along with others did what they did because it’s what they wanted to do. There was no overriding financial motivation. (Oh sure some of them made a little bit of money at the time; you gotta live after all and cover other expenses.) They were after a different kind of outcome. Their philosophy echoed Thoreau: “Create the reality you describe.”

        Those individuals took what was around them and built a culture with it. Now you can argue the positives and negatives of that culture, but you can’t deny the achievement of building it.

        They were part of a small world – a real community if you will. A community just big enough to support itself. Many of them knew each other from previous lives and some were even friends. Their motivation was toward action and not fame and fortune or politics. As Kesey said: “We were doing things so fast there was no time for deliberation. No spin. No selling soap. Just doing it.”

        There was no association with any sort of hip capitalism. (I’m still not quite sure what that is/was; to me it conjures an image of poseurs and phonies.) What was there to sell anyway? It was all kind of homemade, low-rent, and unprofessional in the best sense of that word. And there was precious little market for it.

        As Prankster Ken Babbs said of the Acid Tests: “We were never in a position where we were trying to ‘make it’ in the sense of being discovered and becoming famous. We were just doing what we liked to do and people came to them and we kept going like that.”

        There was a sense that these people were inventing it as they went along without any thought given to really inventing any “thing.” They were just doing it, whatever it was — music, painting, light shows, film, writing, or simply being. As a result, people did things solely for their own sake and enjoyment (and their friends’ as well) with little or no eye to the marketplace (of which there was little to be found at this time). Just a group of people doing what they wanted to do for themselves first and foremost and for the few others who might be interested in it. There were no mega record deals, no epic-scale tours, and only small halls and ballrooms to perform in.

        The Charlatans dressed up in Old West gear and Victorian clothing and tried to play music because it felt good. The Dead decided to follow a siren’s call and pursue their own path because it felt right for them and it was them. The Family Dog staged dances featuring the new music groups such as the Lovin’ Spoonful and Jefferson Airplane because dancing was seen as a panacea for society’s ills and restorative of the soul.

        In looking at the counterculture, perhaps the most remarkable thing about it was that it was totally unanticipated and that it happened without a plan (though not without inspiration). There was no leadership or doctrine, or dogma. It was more a matter of individually similar visions somehow finding each other and forming some sort of bond or connection. It was spontaneous and represented a charismatic and visceral sort of experience. There was a sense that people were inventing it as they went along without any thought given to really inventing any “thing.” They were just doing it, whatever it was — music, painting, light shows, film, writing, or simply being. As a result, people did things solely for their own sake and enjoyment (and their friends’ as well) with little or no eye to the marketplace (of which there was little to be found at this time). Just a group of people doing what they wanted to do for themselves first and foremost and for the few others who might be interested in it.

  2. By the way, I want to make clear that the subtitle of this blog was not meant to indicate in any way that I was excluded from the Summer of Love Roundtable. Not at all! Just a shout out to L.D. for putting together a bunch of interesting people and posts …

  3. Anthony, your piece reminds me that the Summer of Love, 1967, was anything but for African Americans with race riots occurring across the nation and the first demonstrators in the Poor People’s Campaign arriving in DC. How did the Summer of Love look to African Americans and the poor? Probably as a self-indulgent exercise in white middle-class privilege. Just a thought for any of us who romance the year a bit too much. Thank you for bringing up King.

    • I was the same thing as I read the great posts this week–I’m glad you and Anthony Chaney have both talked about that here.

    • The Summer of Love should definitely not be romanticized. This problem has blocked good scholarship on the phenomenon for years, particularly as it plays out in the popular media. But the other problem has been to condemn the counterculture entirely, which is really, if you think about it, just the opposite of romanticizing it too much.

      Perhaps we might notice the complexities of race when we study the swirl of history that was the Summer of Love. Was the Summer of Love a white thing? Yes, for the most part. As Chester Anderson wrote in a Communications Co flier in the Haight Ashbury, the Haight was the most segregated bohemia he had ever seen. But Anderson’s self-reflexive awareness about this, circulated to the public agora that the Haight was at its best, also reminds us of the efforts to come to term with the traumas and problems of race in the hippie scene. There was plenty of indulgence, but also a lot of grappling with the difficult terrain of cultural rebellion, politics, identity, justice, and issues of race.

      And anyway, is indulgence simply bad? One whole intellectual thrust of the counterculture was to question moralizing of this nature and to explore the possibilities of certain kinds of indulgence? Could new kinds of hedonisms and sensations lead to visions or breakthroughs in terms of collective justice as well as self liberation? Could these new modes of personalist inquiry, experience, and revelation be made available to a wide range of people?

      As best we can tell empirically, looking at photos, film footage, memoirs, and more, some African Americans took up these questions too. There were a good number of “black hippies” in the Haight, as well as in places like Detroit. How was this so? In San Francisco, there was a deeper tradition of interracial leftwing union-based bohemianism that was one resource out of which the hippie scene grew. There were efforts to establish connections between white youth and youth of color all around San Francisco by the late 60s. There was much activity in the Haight, for instance, after the 1966 death of 17-year-old Matthew Johnson in Hunter’s Point at the hands of the police alongside unrest and protest in African American Fillmore District. Over time, a shared fear of constant police raids, brutality, and oppression became a shared link too. Also, in terms of class, the counterculture had as many working-class participants among whites (and blacks) as affluent participants, which was one reason the Haight Ashbury had so much difficulty providing services to people like the thousands of runaway teens arriving on the street.

      I write all this just to say that we should be careful as historians not to replicate the mythologized narratives of romance or cynicism that run deep when it comes to studying the Summer of Love. The richness of the story, the diversity of the participation, the complexity and contradictions of the ideas and politics…these refuse those narratives, which often seek to explain away the whole thing rather than try to understand it better.


  4. How fun to check into this thread and see so much good thinking and expert detail filled in! Thank you everyone for your rich commentary. We began talking very quickly beyond the “Summer of Love” strictly understood and about the counterculture in general, and then beyond that, about some larger transformation. Substance far outweighs style in this larger transformation and that is what draws so many, including myself, to this history. The phrase “the Long Sixties” has been used in the historiography, but as Michael reminds us in his mention of more recent scholarship, attempts to periodize are arbitrary and ever-changing, tied to particular concentrations or interpretations.

    Marilynne Robinson, for instance, speaks of a Third Great Awakening. This interpretation brings the Civil Rights Movement and the counterculture under the same umbrella, with the latter—especially the psychedelic/New Age forms we’ve been concentrating on mostly—marking a collapse into decadence and esoterica. For Robinson, obviously, Burroughs would not be one of the heroes.

    My take, in contrast, emphasizes transformation in thinking about physical reality: “the rise of ecological consciousness.” So when I read Burroughs, I see early articulations of the dark side of systems theory and radical socio-ecological thinking, of seeing everything connected, nature and culture, and of our cyborg bodies and minds being used and abused by nefarious powers. I don’t feel liberated with I read Burroughs, I feel a little bit afraid. But as far as being open to explore, as Michael put it, “new visions or breakthroughs”—yes, by all means, count me in.

  5. Sorry to see this so late, but some fantastic perspective.
    As to your comment “practically unreadable” probably describes all the hippie sources I’ve used in the past. How do you cite an unnumbered book with paragraphs written in swirls or in the petals of flowers? I’ve had to figure this one out!
    Leary did seem to get ganged up on, without hearing the full audio recording (I’ve heard a partial) it is hard to always hear the tone. It is my understanding that Watts, Ginsberg, and Snyder had a closer relationship with each other than they did with Leary. While they were all friends, maybe the beat poet/ beat Buddhist connections ran deeper with them. I’ve never looked into the Leary archive, but I would be interested to find some of his thoughts on how he saw the other three and the whole Summer of Love in general. As my research focused very closely on Haight-Ashbury, I didn’t look too closely at Leary as I think his time there was relatively limited.
    I’m also glad you brought Grogan into the conversation. I found him to be a challenging character due to his own admission that he wasn’t always truthful. I still think his perspective was very important. I’d love to see a historian fully unlock him in a substantial critical work.

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