What happened to the spirit that brought down the house of Lyndon Johnson?
It's graduation time now in the Republic and from the egresses of every school in the land winds forth a mighty generation of determined but lost youth. Suspiciously quiet and regarded as benign a growth as The Silent Generation, they dormantly slide forward in the hot June swelter. Still a mother’s pride, they wait for the president to hand out long-awaited diplomas, possessors of wistful smiles, definitely fearing the future.
I am part of the last generation, born ’48 to ’54, not to have a specific profession.
I, the fly on the wall, find myself among them, about halfway back in the line, just between an economics major and a sculptress. Sizing up my classmates’ heroic trysts with success and their glorious failures, I hope some won’t outpace me as I remember those wild nights with each other, thinking wouldn’t it be sweet again. Just twenty-two years old, an M.A. in liberal arts under my belt, I grimly face the search for a job. Qualified for nothing and everything, I am part of the last generation, born ’48 to ’54, not to have a specific profession, if the geometric feast of applications for law, medicine and business schools continue to disobey Malthus. Sure it would be great to have a profession, in the grand old middleclass-Jewish tradition, before the lawyers and MBA’s suffer the famine of the teachers. But, sentimental to the last, I want to write and have thus doomed myself to financial insecurity I might otherwise have avoided. It’s okay with me; I know the novel is dead.
Listening to the speeches of professional graduation-time optimists banishes the distaste of the morning’s anxiety over attending or avoiding the ceremony, wearing cap and gown over my jeans. “The world is before you, make of it what you will,” says the chairman of the board of trustees, remembering life after finishing Yale a half-century ago. Around me, dense talk rises like mist off dank miasma.
“What am I going to do? I’m not qualified for anything ... and I can’t find a job anywhere. Jane’s going to law school and Joanne’s going to make so much money after business school. Man, she’ll get 20 thousand a year!”
Coming mostly from the women, the talk starts me wondering ...the funny thing is the men don’t say much. They’re quiet. Now the women have truly had their say: their arrival has been announced unto the highest rafters of generation, are brave and independent, in superior shape for the mad dash on the road to success. Indeed, if artfully enticing chimeras in the shape of propriety and financial security don’t snatch them from the marathon with promises of easy short-cut victories after nine-month time outs; well, then, no more determined mafia shall ever have fought for a piece of the action.
But what about the men? What about that singularly voiceless and hero-less generation? What do they believe in?
Obviously, the Kennedys are dead and McGovern blew it, though he is still warmly regarded and is given the ultimate accolade of trust. The Beatles grew up and abdicated their throne, Jagger is a kick onstage, Paul Simon is no longer a social critic, and Richard Farina is dead along with Hendrix and George Jackson, too. That leaves Dylan who has a wife and five kids, like a regular 30-year-old, retaining the aura without the substance of heroism. Mellowed, you might say. Elliot Gould sure is cool and devoted politics are lost in the shuffle of heroism. And Norman Mailer, who has preached manhood but seems vaguely threatened by youth’s possibly superior, how shall I say it, muscle tone. He avoids considering young people, preferring instead, thank God, to cover the quivers in the national psyche.
That leaves us on our own. Who are we?
Whatever became of the junior officers of the 2-S battalion, deferred students who did not go to the war pro patria and instead fought the great anarchic civil war at home? First to those frontlines, they now come of age and yet the eerie solitude and worldly corporate ambition of the campuses is absolutely frightening.
What happened to the spirit that brought down the house of Lyndon Johnson and cynically allowed that of Richard Nixon to succeed, thus replacing George III with George IV (perhaps with Queen Victoria to follow)? Our old generals — Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, and Abbie Hoffman — abandoned us for movie stars, kid gurus (the god America deserves) and best-seller publishing.
Have we, the foot soldiers, also lost our vision, foresight and ethics or our vituperation for the sham of cold-warriors and hucksters of the fake, wasteful and intentionally obsolete? Some of us will “take a year off,” mostly to travel in Europe, which has always proved efficacious methadone for postgraduate withdrawal; others will work idly in their home towns before pushing on to more school. Most have just morosely deteriorated in the library, members of a determined rat-race which drinks American beer (that water funneled through a horse) and tallies up its future income after professional school.
First to know only the global America of suburbs, supermarkets and atomic bombs, my generation, this generation, once promised to come forth like so many John F. Kennedys, full of vigor and noble purpose, ready to follow those who would ship us anywhere and have us pay any price to defend the cause of the American century. It was to be a clean-cut generation in short-sleeved shirts, tee-shirts, cutoffs or khaki-Farah pants, strolling beside nice girls, virgins, in round-collar blouses, kilts and nylons held aloft by girdles, that stubborn garment with which our younger brothers will never have to struggle. That we wound up for a while with hair like Karl or Harpo Marx, in work shirts, wearing our crown jewels, a faded pair of blue jeans, was merely the psychopathology of a lofty dream’s violent perversion. Assassins slaked the nation’s darkest thirsts, and the murders of Dr. King and the Kennedys signaled the angry ringing down of the last curtain of altruism — not the final cloth curtain in a full theatre, but the moldy old asbestos fire curtain, its thump in the empty auditorium announcing the snuffing out of the age of liberalism and humanism, just like that.
Sure it’s bad, real bad, that we haven’t marched on Washington to topple this President, but it doesn’t mean all is lost. A generation which has scaled the heights of ideological ecstasy can’t have forgotten the view. Johnson was given the luxury of protest, the possibility of regeneration, and will be remembered, thanks to David Halberstam, as a slightly comic but basically lovable old boy who knew chicken salad from chicken shit. But Nixon, who would have screamed for Chiang's deification had anyone else gone to China, is so distant from even the . faintest hint of credibility, so far from the most ephemeral bestowal of seriousness that Watergate, the Plumbers, the Secret Bombing were foregone conclusions — maledictions deservedly heaped on those suckers fool enough to support him. From Transylvania Street to Pennsylvania Avenue, his memory will be relegated to tales of the gothic, with the President himself starring as a vampire who sucked his political spirit from the blood of the Kennedy brothers and was thus America’s ultimate lucky overachiever.
It was precisely at the moment when the attention of a whole generation was turned away from what we could do for our country that we discovered what we could do for ourselves. In Rolling Stone, Paul McCartney may have discounted replacing Kennedy, but the coincidences of departure and arrival are too convincing. With JFK gone, the Beatles showed a new kind of manhood, taught that guitars and loud music could be as heroic as good works and that, more often than not, won girls more quickly. With their music, dope sailed in right past the customs guards and it became our pabulum, our blood (with long hair, the public constitution that only we had ratified). It may have been difficult for guys to find love, but marijuana, so much better than nervous adolescent sex, was everywhere — in school bathrooms, carpools, Carnegie Hall, walking the dog. It was our skin bracer before we could shave, the cologne of manhood, old Mexican sweet-pepper scent manufactured only for us.
Arthur Frommer couldn’t have written a better guide to Egocentricity on $5.00 a week. Nobody smoked and sold marijuana like this generation: having grown to manhood in the go-go years of a sky-rocketing Dow Jones, we really understood marketing. Dope became our life, our sustenance, our universal metaphor. “I’m going to do some dinner. I’m going to roll me a peanut butter sandwich.” It helped generate, if it did not give rise to, hair, hippies, indifference and studied bemusement. Mother never quite understood why we were laughing so hard at the dinner table. Dope yoked personal experience to public existence; we talked about ourselves, not politics. We found our voice not in prose but in guitars, gulping kilowatts and kilowatts of that sweet, sappy Con-Ed vintage of 1966 or ’68. We turned Kenyan plowshares into Fender Stratocasters and when we reach into those magical electrical sinews, the whole knowable world came out in one note, much as it did when earlier generations reacted to epiphanies of Joyce or Hemingway.
But making it with that note, that voice, was not important; finding yourself was. Many a performer’s momentary bummer made him a million in song because his musing reflected real internal ' existence and allowed him to “relate to the world.” Egocentricity became the curriculum vitae of all that passed for culture, our own apocalyptic vision, like Pound’s Usura Canto. What hath slayeth the commune and wileth the movement was the cry of the ego. Everyone wanted to be Trotsky, a Commander of the Red Army, and few had read enough to know that Stalinism triumphed. Dopers emulated Senators and preachers, not computer programmers.
In the future, when tales are told over scotch around fireplaces, in whatever place we make our Westchesters, be they in Soleri houses or not, the great adventures of lost youth will come from our underground existence as the princes of dope. Fantastic trips, great highs and, most importantly, getting busted. Our contact with the long arm of the law had previously been a clout on the head in Chicago and now it was a rap of knuckles on the door in a bust. The dealer (there were no pushers) was every bit as romantic and unscrupulous as the bootlegger except that he was no Gatsby; he was one of us — the lawyer’s son, the dermatologist's boy, the center on the basketball team. A true hero risen among us, he was a middle class merchant whose turnover of the same goods again and again shamed McDonald’s at four times the profit. The casualties were numerous, though the jail sentences were few. One day you saw the hair of the Yale Admissions Interviewer turn orange in an acid flash and the next week the feds come out of manholes in your suburb with .45 Police Specials to warn against escape. Turning on the entire wrestling team and the intra-mural manager is fun but then they turn you in. I even had my car temporarily confiscated at the border because my passenger had weed. But what the hell, man, it’s another story to tell ...it’s all that matters, with dope.
There were, however, other kinds of adventures. On the road, disguised as Dean Moriarty (Kesey’s Cassidy) we took off for school in 400-cubic-inch Toronados or Bonnevilles, hunched over the wheel as if on the tail end of Benzedrine, just pulling into Idaho from Wyoming with a day of driving to go. We did so even though the roads had changed. By our affluent time, the soothing views of farmhouses, villages, and mainstreets had been blown into oblivion by Interstates, those manic labyrinths of the night. The legend of' the pleasant hitchhiker-adventurer, good for
talk and keepin’ ’em alive on the way home, had decayed into fear of that sex-starved hophead, the hippie bandit. An expressway even took us to our brand new campus-style high school as the roadside, there and everywhere — on 195 to the Canadian border, I-80 across Iowa and even on Route 66 — lobbed forth a dull sheen broken only be dreariness.
That meant one pursued the road to find oneself and not our sad, tragic America. The great dream remained long past its usefulness as a catalyst for heightened awareness. We continued to seek the one fine true experience among real Americans in roadside stands, shipyards and fishing villages — where we were least welcome. After a time, we found out that the real people were cops and we grew to appreciate the duplication of leisure services called competition that had made youth fares possible.
Still, something was missing... History, perhaps. And the certified beauty of ancient times. If America did not offer that, Europe did.
Reprinted from the Chicago Reader Continued next week