Why doesn’t anybody ever talk about the experimental literature of the Vietnam War era?
There seems to be no such thing as a “Hippie Generation” in fiction or poetry. This is surprising, since the 60’s and 70’s produced so much good music, art and film. These years were charged with political and social drama, and it occurred to me to take a fresh look at the writings of these years to observe exactly what shape literature took during this time.
I began the inquiry by wandering through Barnes and Noble’s bookshelves with a notebook, jotting down publication dates and figuring out what was published in what order. I concentrated on a few writers I’d already identified as the core “postmoderns” of the period — John Barth, Joseph Heller, Ken Kesey, Donald Barthelme, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, Richard Brautigan — and I also looked into other corners, from Latin American literature to pop bestsellers to the Updike/Roth/Bellow/Salinger crowd to the Beat poets. Among all these disparate voices, I tried to discern a single united voice of the Vietnam War era, and finally I think I did hear one. It was an ironic, quizzical voice, self-conscious, frenetic, and not at all angry or accusatory. It was silmultaneously meek and courageous — the voice of a person who would walk up to a policeman and stick a flower in his rifle barrel.
The literary sensibility is wildly playful, sometimes to an almost annoying extreme. There is an utter refusal to be serious in many of the writings of this period — a refusal that when expressed persistently can form a serious statement in itself. Nothing is tragic and nobody is guilty. Spontaneous philosophical dissertations, funny names (Oedipas Maas, Sissy Hankshaw and Horse Badorties) and untethered sex in various combinations are all “in”. Macho posturing a la Hemingway is “out”, and so is that favorite theme of Western lit from Jane Austen to F. Scott Fitzgerald, the eternal battle between “old money” and “new money”. Class struggle just doesn’t seem to matter much in the age of hydrogen bombs and Hendrix albums. Even the fiery passions of Norman Mailer and Allen Ginsberg seem somewhat overheated for this cool, collegiate crew.
I don’t want to dwell in too many generalities, so let’s just dive right in to the details. It is the year 1961 when this inquiry begins. The Beatles are still playing dives in London, Hamburg and Liverpool, and Bob Dylan is an unknown folksinger hanging around Greenwich Village wearing a Charlie Chaplin cap. The new President has just been sworn into office.
The Kennedy Years
Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22”, published in 1961, was a major statement in many ways. This satirical snapshot of a World War II air force base on an Italian island had no respect for either military principles or banal organizational bureaucracies, which seemed in Heller’s world to be even more evil than war itself.
J. D. Salinger offered his readers a cool, gentle lima bean of a book, “Franny and Zooey”, about the spiritual yearnings of a couple of brainy adolescents. It became a major bestseller and helped set the tone for the odd and introspective decade to come. Robert Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” introduced the concept of “grok”, and Larry McMurty began his long career with “Horseman, Pass By”. A book of poems called “Stufen” would turn out to be elder statesman Hermann Hesse’s last work before his death. Henry Miller‘s “Tropic of Cancer” was finally cleared of obscenity charges and legally published in America for the first time. Dr. Seuss’s late-period classic “The Sneetches and Other Stories” contained welcome messages about prejudice and other social ills.
1962 was another excellent year. Stanford student Ken Kesey, then still somewhat strait-jacketed by the trappings of being a “promising young novelist”, was acclaimed as the brightest new talent of the year for his stunning book about a renegade patient in a mental hospital, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. Philip Roth, who had previously been acclaimed the brightest new talent of a couple of years before, published his first full-length novel, “Letting Go”.
William S. Burroughs’ shockingly amusing “Naked Lunch” was cleared of obscenity charges and published in America for the first time in 1962. Jack Kerouac published “Big Sur”, a heart-rendering account of a mental breakdown, which many (including myself) consider his last great book.
Other 1962 releases include “Mother Night”, science-fiction writer Kurt Vonnegut‘s third book, and his first to venture uncertainly into the realm of political satire. Bruce Jay Friedman’s “Stern” was a paranoid comedy about suburban ostracism. “A Clockwork Orange” by Anthony Burgess featured its own invented “language”, a full-bodied system of slang that made the book a unique reading experience.
Theater was also straining against conventionality in 1962, with the openings of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ” and Arthur Kopit’s “Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad”. No less brilliant was Charles Schulz’s “Happiness is a Warm Puppy”, the first Peanuts collection in book form and the eventual inspiration behind John Lennon’s “Happiness is a Warm Gun”, not to mention “Doonesbury” and many great comic strips of the future.
An autobiographical book about a teenage girl’s experience with madness, “The Bell Jar” by Victoria Lucas, came out in January 1963. Victoria Lucas was a pseudonym for Sylvia Plath, who was silmultaneously trying to establish herself as a poet under her real name. A month later, on February 11, the 31-year-old Plath would commit suicide in the kitchen of her home. Her best poems would be published after her death.
Poetry was the subject of a legendary 1963 conference in Vancouver where Jack Spicer, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Whalen and Clark Coolidge met to share ideas and provide moral support within the growing alternative poetry scene.
Susan Sontag’s first novel, “The Benefactor”, also came out in 1963. J. D. Salinger seemed to be venturing into the seriously-weird territory with his follow-up to “Franny and Zooey”, a miniscule book composed of two stories that had already been published in the New Yorker, “Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenters” and “Seymour: An Introduction”. The wall of silence that would eventually descend over Salinger’s writings seemed to have already fallen, because reading these stories feels like looking at a wall.
Two key postmodern stylists advanced their art further, though, in 1963. “V” was an ambitious tour de force by Thomas Pynchon, and “Cat’s Cradle” showed Kurt Vonnegut treading more steadily into the realm of social and political satire with it’s depiction of obsessive scientists toying with ‘Ice-Nine’, a chemical capable of freezing the entire world in an instant.
Grove Press, having survived the legal hazard of publishing Henry Miller in America, bravely published his new work, the acclaimed “Black Spring”. James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time” and John Updike’s “The Centaur” also came out in 1963.
The Lyndon Johnson Years
Two key works by African-Americans came out in 1964, “Nigger!” by comedian turned political activist Dick Gregory in 1964, and the Obie-award winning play “Dutchman” by Leroi Jones, who would later change his name to Amiri Baraka. But the highly original African-American poet Bob Kaufman, who had been publishing the seminal underground journal “Beatitude” in San Francisco since 1959, continued to withdraw himself from visibility in this year, having taken a vow of silence after the assassination of President Kennedy.
Paris made a comeback in 1964 with “The Words” by Jean-Paul Sartre and the posthumous “Moveable Feast” by Ernest Hemingway. The American West was also big: Thomas Berger had a hit with “Little Big Man”, and Ken Kesey took us to the logging towns of Oregon for his second novel, “Sometimes A Great Notion” (the author himself had already completed his break with normalcy and spent the summer of 1964 driving cross country in a bus called “Further” with the rest of the Merry Pranksters).
Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg had a controversial bestseller in 1964 with “Candy”, a cheerfully subversive sex romp loosely based on Voltaire’s “Candide”. Moptop Beatle John Lennon expressed his Joycean side with a charming book of scribblings, diminishingly titled “In His Own Write”. On the hyper-intellectual side, Donald Barthelme’s deconstructionist “Come Back, Dr. Caligari” arrived in 1964, as did “Labyrinths”, an influential English language edition of the works of surreal Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges. Saul Bellow’s “Herzog” and Arthur Miller’s play about Marilyn Monroe, “After The Fall”, also came out in 1964.
Many first novelists debuted in this year. Hubert Selby wrote “Last Exit to Brooklyn”, and a young graduate of Williams College in Massachusetts named Charles Webb produced a comic novel about the existential ennui of life after college, “The Graduate”, which to this day nearly stands as a blueprint for Dustin Hoffman’s entire persona as an actor. Anne Tyler’s first novel, “If Morning Ever Comes”, came out in 1964. And it is especially difficult to imagine a time when Joyce Carol Oates had only one book out, but she published the first of her approximately 842 extant novels (and I hear she’s just getting started) in this year, grandiosely titled “With Shuddering Fall”.
1965 would introduce a major new voice in Richard Brautigan‘s first novel, “A Confederate General From Big Sur”. Brautigan in some ways seems the most prototypical voice of this era — half hippie and half crazed loner, emotional but impassive, simplistic but complex, popular but despised. Brautigan’s slightly more academic soul brother Thomas Pynchon brought out “The Crying of Lot 49” in 1965, and their other, geekier soul brother Kurt Vonnegut chimed in as well with a somewhat unformed new effort, “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater”.
San Francisco must have been exciting in 1965. Kesey and the Merry Pranksters had parked the bus and were holding acid tests in various beachhouses and theatres all over California. Haight-Ashbury was already hopping but had not yet been swamped by heroin dealers and hippie-for-a-day tourists. Beat poet Michael McClure found himself in the spotlight when the city decided to close down his play “The Beard”, a diagrammatic study of sexual attraction that featured characters resembling Billy the Kid and Jean Harlow wearing fake beards who circled each other through most of the evening, debating whether or not to have sex. The police would come every night to arrest the actors, but the theatre company refused to back down and forced the police to repeat this act night after night, which only had the affect of attracting larger audiences.
Berkeley, across the bay from San Francisco, was the scene of a 1965 sequel to the 1963 Vancouver poetry conference. Among the participants at this event were John Weiners, Ted Berrigan, Ed Dorn, Lew Welch, Lenore Kandel, Ron Loewinsohn, Anne Waldman (then a young unknown), Ed Sanders (who had begun publishing the journal “Fuck You” in New York), and John Sinclair (who would later go on to organize a lot of noisy protests, start the Detroit band MC5 and inspire a John Lennon song on the album “Sometime In New York City”). One important ringleader of this fascinating circle of poetic rabble-rousers, Jack Spicer, died in this year.
Allen Ginsberg, on a literary tour of Europe, had a pleasant surprise in Prague. He was spontaneously acclaimed “King of May” by admiring students at a major national parade, and was carried through the streets as crowds wildly cheered — not bad for an openly gay Jewish hippie poet from New Jersey.
Jerzy Kozinski’s first novel, “The Painted Bird”, came out in 1965, Claude Brown’s “Manchild in the Promised Land” was another landmark book about the African-American experience, and Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa’s “La Casa Verde” was published in Spain. Another influential book from this year, though not in the least literary, was “Unsafe At Any Speed”, an attack on the automobile industry by the young muckraker Ralph Nader.
John Barth, a highly acclaimed postmodern stylist who claimed literary inspiration from Joyce and Faulkner, published one of his stranger books in 1966. “Giles Goat-Boy” was about a boy raised by goats battling an evil computer system on a college campus. “The Magus” by John Fowles was a moral fable about an apparently innocent collegiate Brit who is subjected to an elaborate demonstration of ancient mythological references on an isolated Greek island. Richard Farina’s first novel, “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me”, was published in 1966, but the author died just as it was being released, while joy-riding on a motorcycle during a party celebrating the 21st birthday of his wife, folksinger Mimi Farina.
One of the biggest bestsellers of 1966 was “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote, who would famously mock Jack Kerouac on the Tonight Show by criticizing his spontaneous technique: “That’s not writing, that’s typing”. As future commentators like David Amram enjoy pointing out, a lot more people read Kerouac than Capote today.
Another huge 1966 book that isn’t read much anymore was the “Quotations of Chairman Mao”, which would influence many young Americans with its concept of revolution as a subtle, inscrutable groundswell rising organically from the countryside. Later investigations would show Mao’s revolution to be nowhere near as innocent or as popular as was thought at the time, but the book did seem to have a tremendous following in America during the protest movement years.
The city of San Francisco couldn’t stop promoting the careers of young hippie writers by arresting them. Having reenergized the career of Michael McClure the year before, they now went after poet Lenore Kandel and small indie publisher Stolen Paper Editions for publishing Kandel’s gently pornographic “The Love Book”, turning it into a cause celebre as they had with “The Beard” a year before.
Other 1966 books included the sensationalistic bestseller “Valley of the Dolls” by Jacqueline Susann, “Cries and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Cries” by Stanley Elkin, and “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes.
The “Human Be-In” in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in January 1967 featured Michael McClure, Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder reciting poetry, waving flowers and clanging finger cymbals on a makeshift stage (the picture of dancing Allen Ginsberg on the LitKicks front page was taken during this event). Later in 1967, Esquire magazine published the article that would form the basis of Hunter S. Thompson‘s book “Hell’s Angels”. Terry Southern produced an excellent book of short stories, “Re
d Dirt Marijuana and Other Tales”, and Donald Barthelme spun a postmodern version of the fairy tale “Snow White”.
Richard Brautigan’s breakthrough came in 1967 with the enormously popular “Trout Fishing In America”. Tom Stoppard’s “Hamlet” spinoff “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” arrived in 1967. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” was published in South America, and a political satire called “The Joke” by a young Czech writer named Milan Kundera helped to fan the flames of popular revolt which would be crushed by Soviet forces in Prague a year later. Other 1967 books include “The Chosen” by Chaim Potok, “Down These Mean Streets” by Piri Thomas and “The Confessions of Nat Turner” by William Styron.
1967 was no summer of love for Cleveland poet and self-publisher d. a. levy, who would be arrested repeatedly for distributing obscene materials. Other poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Ed Sanders came to his aid, but the angry misfit pamphleteer would kill himself in 1968.
Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire” and Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” were published in 1968. Ken Kesey shows up not as the author but as the subject of “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” by journalist Tom Wolfe. Joseph Heller, unproductive since 1961’s “Catch-22” finally shows up not as a novelist but as a playwright with “We Bombed In New Haven”. Theatre was transported into a new realm in 1968, though, by the enormous popular success of the first rock musical, “Hair”, which presented a nude finale to the tune of “Let The Sunshine In” along with a lot of political and social commentary. The songs were incredibly catchy, but the popularity of this work could not help but hasten the emerging cliche of the media-happy hippie.
Kurt Vonnegut’s short story collection “Welcome to the Monkey House” was published. Joyce Carol Oates’ “Expensive People” presented the first person narration of a Dostoyevskian child-murderer. Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice” was a popular manifesto of the Black Panther movement, and Grove Press’s edition of Che Guevera’s “Bolivian Diaries” further fanned the popular flames of political dissent.
John Updike’s raciest book, and one of the hottest sellers of his long career, was 1968’s “Couples”, featuring an awful lot of wife swapping and screwing around in an upper class New England town called Tarbox. It’s strange today to think that the patrician and refined John Updike was once considered a morally corrupt writer of popular (though undeniably well-written) sex trash. My favorite Updike book is 1979’s “Too Far To Go”, a collection of short stories about a married couple known as the Maples, written and published over the course of three decades. The book opens in the 1950’s, when the young newlyweds are already clearly dealing with some “issues”, and closes in the late 70’s when they finally succumb to divorce. The middle stories in this unique book date from the 60’s, and it’s interesting to glimpse the adults of this age reacting to the excesses of their energetic times, debating Martin Luther King and Vietnam, trying on bikinis, pondering the meaning of married sex in the age of free love.
My favorite Richard Brautigan book, the absolutely shatteringly wierd “In Watermelon Sugar”, came out in 1968, as did Norman Mailer’s “Armies of the Night” a non-fiction work about the American resistance to the Vietnam war. A new indie publisher called Black Sparrow Press, which continues to publish the works of many writers such as Charles Bukowski in dignified and attractive paper-cover editions, produced its first book, Ron Loewinsohn’s “L’Autre”.
Jack Kerouac’s last full-length novel, “Vanity of Duluoz”, was a nostalgic college-age reverie depressingly out of sync with the rest of the world. His “On The Road” friend Neal Cassady died in this year, and Kerouac continued to drink himself closer and closer to death in his Florida hideaway.
The Nixon Years
Sex was big in 1969. The most sensational novel of 1969 was Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint”, a sexually charged neurotic comedy about a Jewish intellectual struggling to defeat his own repressive instincts, embodied in his overpowering mother.
David R. Reuben, M.D. also produced a 1969 bestseller on the same general topic, the expository and useful “Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex (But Were Afraid To Ask)”.
In 1969 Charles Webb, author of the original novel “The Graduate”, tried again with “Love, Roger”, a circumspect love story about a shy adult male who, like the author, seemed more than anything else to want to disappear. A musical revue about sexual inhibitions called “Oh Calcutta” was a hit on Broadway in 1969, and included a sketch by John Lennon and many contributions by a dramatist named Jacques Levy who would later help Bob Dylan write songs for the mid-70’s album “Desire”.
Essayist Joan Didion published a novel about a woman in life-crisis, “Play It As It Lays”. Korean War veteran Richard Hooker had a hit with “M*A*S*H”, a ribald military satire in the tradition of “Catch-22”, and “Catch-22″‘s own author continued to avoid publishing a second novel. In 1969 Kurt Vonnegut finally wrote the masterwork he seemed to have been skirting around for years, “Slaughterhouse-Five”, in which he told the shocking story of his own experience as an American prisoner of war witnessing the firebombing of Dresden in World War II. All the sci-fi trappings, weird aliens and time-travel fantasies in the world couldn’t dampen the rage he channeled in this book, which became an instant classic and sealed his reputation.
1969 was the year of the Woodstock Festival. It was also the year that Norman Mailer ran for mayor of New York City. He had already tried this once before, in 1960, but ruined whatever slim chance he had of winning by bizarrely attacking his wife with a knife during a fight at a campaign party. He didn’t win the election in 1969 either, though at least this time he refrained from stabbing anyone, perhaps in deference to the peace movement.
Joyce Carol Oates continued to hit her stride with “Them”. A classic of psychedelic anthropology, “The Teachings of Don Juan” by Carlos Castaneda, was also published in 1969. The Mafia was also big this year, with Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather” and Peter Maas’s “The Valachi Papers”.
Three major voices of African-American literature, all women, made their debuts in quick succession around this time. Toni Morrison first novel, “The Bluest Eye”, was published in 1969. Poet Maya Angelou’s popular novel, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” came out in 1970, as did Alice Walker’s first novel, “The Third Life of Grange Copeland”.
The Kent State shootings in May 1970 brought the popular American protest against the Vietnam war to it’s most critical and dangerous moment. Two centuries earlier, British troops had shot and killed several civilians in what came to be known as the Boston Massacre. Now, National Guard troops had shot four mild-mannered state university students to death in Ohio, and for a moment, every American had to face the possibility that the nation might succumb to fighting in the streets. The books published in this year do not clearly indicate the turmoil many Americans must have been feeling. Three notable titles were “A Slipping-Down Life” by Anne Tyler, “Being There” by Jerzy Kozinski and “Love Story” by Erich Segal, who had earlier worked on the script for the Beatles movie “Yellow Submarine”.
Another strange moment of violence occured in Japan on November 25, 1970. Years before, Yukio Mishima had written an acclaimed short story, “Patriotism”, about a young soldier who is forced to commit hari-kari with his beautiful wife after a failed military coup. Yukio Mishima had gathered so many followers by 1970 that he attempted to stage a real-life political coup himself, occupying a governme
nt building in Tokyo with his “army”. When the coup failed he followed the inspiration of his own rivetingly told story, and ritually disemboweled himself in the prescribed fashion.
James Michener, a popular author with no ties to the hippie movement, helped calm the national mood by quickly writing an in-depth study of the Kent State shootings, “Kent State: What Happened and Why”, which presented the human side of the story and blamed the extremists on both sides for the deaths. This book came out in 1971, as did Abbie Hoffman’s “Steal This Book” and Ed Sanders’ “The Family: the Story of Charles Manson’s Dune Buggy Attack Battalion” (this was perhaps too funny a title for its dreadful subject, and the book was later renamed “The Family: The Manson Group and Aftermath”).
City Lights published “Last of the Moccasins”, Charles Plymell’s elegy for Wichita, Kansas and the troubled older sister who taught him how to be cool but could not save herself from self-destruction. Dee Brown’s “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee”, a defiant history of Native Americans, was also published in 1971.
Norman Mailer’s cranky diatribe against women’s liberation, “The Prisoner Of Sex”, also came out this year, and Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” appeared in serial form in Rolling Stone magazine.
Amidst all the argumentation, Tom Robbins presented the phenomenon of Jesus returning to an earth not quite ready to receive him in his first novel, “Another Roadside Attraction”. Charles Bukowski‘s breakthrough novel, “Post Office,” came out in the same year. Other 1971 titles include “Grendel”, an evocation of Anglo-Saxon mythology by John Gardner, Edward Abbey’s “Black Sun”, Hubert Selby’s second novel, “The Room”, Thomas McGuane’s “The Bushwhacked Piano” and Paul Zindel’s play “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds”.
1972 brought a massive popular hit that, perhaps, finally pushed the minimalist hippie/summer-of-love ethic too far. It is hard to describe today how huge the phenomenon of “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” was. Richard Bach’s slim paperback with the navy blue cover told of a seagull’s coming of age and crisis of confidence before he truly learns to fly. It was a good book but was also somehow just too easy to make fun of, even if it did make a few readers spirits actually take flight in 1972.
Emmett Grogan, who had been drifting since his days as ringleader for the highly creative and ironic San Francisco social action group known as the Diggers, wrote a thoughtful retrospective of his political education in 1972, entitled “Ringolevio: A Life Played For Keeps”.
Other notable titles from this year included “All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers” by Larry McMurty, “P.S. Your Cat Is Dead” by James Kirkwood and “Edwin Mulhouse”, the first novel by Steven Millhauser. Gail Parent’s “Shiela Levine is Dead and Living in New York” was a hilarious female spin on the “Portnoy’s Complaint” theme, only a little more slick and pastuerized than Roth’s original.
As for Philip Roth himself, he produced a slim volume in 1972 that took his own career to a final extreme in the same way that “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” had for the whole hippy/love genre. Roth’s “The Breast” was about a sexually obsessive male intellectual who actually turns into a single, large women’s breast, and sits strapped to a hospital bed. It’s a great joke, a Kafkaesque joke even. It may have even been inspired by the continuing popularity of Dalton Trumbo’s tragic novel “Johnny Got His Gun” about a proud World War I soldier reduced to a lumpish form and strapped to a hospital bed, a book that found new relevance in the Vietnam era. But Roth’s version replaces political outrage with sexual neurosis, which may actually be part of the intended joke. Regardless of the intentions, it is a one-joke novel, which is below the standards expected of a writer like Roth.
In general, it was a time for reaching one’s own extremes. Kurt Vonnegut produced his most “Vonnegut” book in 1973, “Breakfast of Champions”, a wild tour de force supposedly about a craven car salesman named Dwayne Hoover and a lonely science-fiction writer named Kilgore Trout, who were destined to meet and harm each other. But the book was actually about Kurt Vonnegut, who held the readers hand every paragraph of the way, drawing pictures, telling stories and rarely letting his characters breathe. It was not a bad book, but it got bad reviews and marked an end to the first phase of Vonnegut’s career. The book has special meaning to me, though, because as a sixth-grader in 1973 it was the very first “grown-up” book I ever read, and I loved the hell out of it.
I wish I could say I also read Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” in 1973, but I didn’t, nor did I read the first installment of the soon-to-be epic-length poem “Loba” by Diane DiPrima. More commercially successful books I did not read that year include “Burr” by Gore Vidal, “M*A*S*H Goes to Maine” by Richard Hooker and William Goldman’s “The Princess Bride”, subtitled “A Hot Fairy Tale”.
1974 was a good year, and not just because Nixon resigned in August. The year brought two late-period hippie classics: first, “The Fan Man” by William Kotzwinkle, which has more fun with language than any book since Burgess’s “Clockwork Orange”, and introduces the highly useful phrase that goes something like this:
“Another dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky dorky day”
Kotzwinkle would go on to write the novelizations based on the movie “E.T.” and made them far better than they would have been if he hadn’t written them.
1974 also gave us Robert Pirsig’s classic “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, much of which takes place in the Philosophy Department of the University of Chicago where the characters discuss phenomenology and Greek culture, which makes it far less of a “road novel” than its deceptively innocent title indicates.
1974 must have been a good year for intellectual flights, as it also brought Vladimir Nabakov’s final novel, a pseudo-biography of a famous Russian novelist called “Look at the Harlequins!” which showed the hippie postmodern crowd that the old Russian master could do self-referential irony as well as anybody wearing headbands or beads.
Iris Murdoch’s “The Sacred and Profane Love Machine” also came out in 1974. One of the first novels to deal with the Vietnam war experience was “Dog Soldiers” by Robert Stone. Poet Anne Sexton committed suicide. And Joseph Heller, a writer so reticent as to make Ken Kesey seem prolific, finally wrote a second novel, “Something Happened”.
The Ford Years and Beyond
The Vietnam war ended in highly equivocated defeat in 1975 when American forces deserted Saigon, allowing it to fall to the Vietcong. It is necessary for me to wrap this survey up somewhere, so I may as well pick a work I like as the closer. Gary Snyder won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for “Turtle Island”, a gently thoughtful book of poetry that captures moments of life in a peaceful post-hippie commune in the Sierra Nevadas. This is good as any ending I’m going to find.
You see, I can also do “self-referential” as well as any postmodern hippie or Russian novelist. The reason I decided to begin this survey in 1961 is that this is the year I was born. And the main reason I am ending it in 1975 is not that the Vietnam war ended, but that my childhood was over.
By 1976, when Tom Robbins wrote “Even Cowgirls Get The Blues” and Lisa Alther wrote “K
in-Flicks”, I was already sporting a bit of facial hair, learning to drive and trying to score weed (without much luck). In 1977, the year that Raymond Carver published “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please”, I went to my first rock concerts (Queen, Pink Floyd, Peter Frampton, Jethro Tull, what a year).
I abandoned arena rock to become a punk after witnessing a Ramones concert in early 1978, and I lost my virginity that summer, around the same time that Douglas Adams launched “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. My innocence was pretty much lost by now, and I think some of America’s literary innocence may have been lost around this time as well.
So I end this inquiry here. I would like to further develop this area with as many biographies of individual authors as possible, and would appreciate contributions or suggestions. An article on Robert Pirsig is coming soon. Can anybody offer to write bios of Robert Creeley, Tom Robbins, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, Charles Plymell, Philip Roth or any of the other writers included here? Please see the Writer’s Guidelines if you would like to contribute.