Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Hippie Narrative: A Literary Perspective on the Counterculture by Scott MacFarlane.
Scott MacFarlane’s Hippie Narrative sets out criticism of a proposed canon of novels that inspired and defined the US counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. He treats fifteen books published over fifteen years. Of these, I’ve read six–though none recently–and only two were ones I’d never before encountered. These latter two were Divine Right’s Trip by Gurney Norman and The Fan Man by William Kotzwinkle. A preliminary chapter surveys the work of the 1950s Beats as a precedent and precursor to the “underground narratives” (a term MacFarlane takes from Thomas Newhouse) of the later counterculture. Most of MacFarlane’s authors were participants in–though some only close observers of–the counterculture, although they tend to have been older than the baby boomers, and few if any seem to have identified themselves as “hippies,” a term which MacFarlane explains to have been etic and pejorative in its origins.
Several books in MacFarlane’s list relate to the New Journalism that produced “nonfiction novels” and fictionalized book-length reportage. He instances Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test as a seminal work of long-form New Journalism, Mailer’s Armies of the Night as a more accomplished development of the approach, and Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as an extreme case with a distinctive and influential view of the counterculture. He also observes how Robbins’ Another Roadside Attraction deploys the tropes of New Journalism in a more humorously fantastic work. At the opposite end of the spectrum from the dramatized facticity of New Journalism, the list includes two works of science fiction: Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.
MacFarlane characterizes this study as “constructivist,” a term he uses in two disparate senses throughout the book. In the sense of literary analysis, he opposes “constructivism” to deconstruction, and thus a constructivist reader is willing to reckon with authorial craft and intent in ways post-structuralist critics have renounced. In a more general socio-cultural sense, he takes the “constructivist” impulse as the complement of the Dionysian dynamics that act as a sort of social solvent and disrupt tradition and received authority. He opines that while the counterculture has been largely reduced in hindsight to its prankster and bacchanalian aspects, nevertheless participants were motivated by genuine interests in the coherent reorientation of society toward ecological concerns, health, spirituality, and new forms of community.
MacFarlane himself was born in 1956, and was thus a little on the young side to have joined in the full flower of the movement he writes about here. Nevertheless he clearly identifies with the counterculture, recounts his own firsthand experience of hippie lifestyle, and views the counterculturalists of the 1960s and 1970s as cheated of their proper recognition in the development of American culture and collective identity. While correctly observing that the counterculture was not simply “about” its psychopharmaceutical component, MacFarlane also posits that the psychedelic drugs identified with it were inherent to its character. He gives a careful and fair weighing to the representations of and claims about drug experiences in the works that he treats. A third or more of the authors in this sample themselves never took experimental or proscribed drugs.
He takes rather angry exception to Joan Didion’s 1967 essay “Slouching Toward Bethlehem,” which casts hippies as socially incompetent cast-offs and victims. MacFarlane insists by contrast that the main population of hippies consisted of capable people who had made different lifestyle choices, and who, as it turned out in his case, did not permanently sever themselves from the world of straights.
With his generally positive regard for the hippie counterculture, MacFarlane is concerned to address its persistence and continuing effects. He mentions Deadheads, “certain communes,” Rainbow Gatherings, and the Burning Man festival, as well as “the environmental movement, the New Age movement, natural foods movement, high tech innovation, etc.” (68); but he omits any notice of the growth of neopaganism and its festival circuit, or popular dance cultures, most significantly the MDMA-fueled rave scene of the 1990s. He certainly didn’t anticipate the Occupy movement. In his anecdote about encountering a “neo-hippie” in 2005, he really was as mainstream as he supposes he appeared to the young woman. He was unfamiliar with fire-spinning, which had long since become a fixture of countercultural entertainment. His attachment to the counterculture is essentially nostalgic and trained on its dated expressions from bygone decades.
In his reflections on hippie culture and its relationship to the mainstream, MacFarlane addresses the dispersal and commodification of the counterculture. He also repeatedly instances hitchhiking as a manifestation of the fluidity once–but now no longer–accommodated by the larger US society. He doesn’t really explore this shift, other than as an index of the loss of “free-spirited mobility.” He observes that free or cheap travel around the US has become more difficult with the passing decades. He might have equally considered the burgeoning of electronically-mediated socialization and mass surveillance in the twenty-first century as a damper on countercultural manifestation, but that was perhaps less apparent when this book was published in 2007. In any case, The Hippie Narrative is notable not only for the author’s sympathetic regard for the hippie phenomenon, but for his approach to it through the lens of literary works of enduring interest. [via]