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The Sixties

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One of the reasons  I always think it’s a good idea to teach intellectual history and not just history–to teach the history of ideas–is because it keeps us from inventing mythologies that have little to do with reality and everything to do with what we want to be true. 

And the problem about what we want to be true is that, if it’s wrong, it gets us into trouble.

So I’ve been reading all this Hawthorne, and all these things about  Hawthorne and the people he knew in that odd period between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars in Massachusetts, and it suddenly occurred to me that the Transcendalist movement was more like the Sixties than I’d ever realized. 

We like to think that the Sixties happened to us, that it was unprecedented in American history, and that everything went bad afterwards.  At least, we like to think that unless we are a certain kind of sociology professor, who thinks the  Sixties was wonderful, and that it was  Ronald Reagan who made everything go bad afterwards.

Let’s start with this:  there have always been both liberals and conservatives in America, and we’ve always needed both liberals and conservatives. Each of them brings something to the conversation that the other lacks, and the thing each of them brings is vital.

In the case of conservatives, I’m talking mainstream here, not the kind of nutcase who finds Communists under Barack Obama’s bed, or in it, or the kind that has a burning desire to legislate everything from sodomy to religious expression.   In sane times,  American conservatives tend to be about free market capitalism, limiting the reach of government power in the economy, adhering to judicial precedent (sometimes beyond the point where that makes sense), and respecting tradition.

With liberals, though,  I’m talking not necessarily about true radicals, but about the left edge, given where “left” is for the time.  The odd thing about the left edge is that it always looks more or less the same.  It tends to be utopian in social policy, to think that it is possible to perfect human beings and to build a just and painless society.   It tends also to think that doing that is best handled by going Back to Nature in some way or the other.   Rousseau believed that man started good and was corrupted by society.  Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Bronson Alcott concurred.   Even Nathaniel Hawthorne tried to concur, but it turned out he didn’t much like working on a farm, which you have to do if the farm is what’s supposed to support you.

The farm I’m thinking about is  Brook Farm, the first of the  Transcendentalist experiments in communal living.   Like the communes of the  Sixties that were its spiritual heirs, it collapsed under the weight of its own silliness in only a few years.

And it’s hard not to look at the Transcendentalists and not see them as just as silly as they were, because they were very silly indeed.  In religion, they departed from standard forms of Christianity first into Unitarianism–no Trinity, everybody gets saved in the end, and a vagueness about theology that made Deism look rigorous–and then into a sort of spiritual mush made up of feeling one with the universe and finding heaven inside each man.

Or something.  I came to the Transcendentalists late, well after I’d read my way through a ton of Catholic theology.  I was hard to figure out what they hell it was they wanted, and my guess is that they didn’t know it themselves.  Unitarianism was vague enough itself, and that finally ended in a denomination some people call “atheism for people who like church.” 

It’s easy to laugh at the airy-fairy silliness of so many of Emerson’s essays, just as it’s eas to laugh at Henry David Thoreau and his not-quite-going-back-to-nature on Walden Pond.


Emerson’s theology was hammered out of a life of staggering losses–two of his brothers died before they reached adulthood.  The third was insane.  His first wife died less than two years into their marriage.  His first son died in infancy.   When his first wife had been dead about a year, he went to the graveyard and had her tomb opened.  He looked at what was eft of her inside, came out, and resigned his pulpit.  He would never be a tradtional Christian again.

As for Thoreau–I’ve always found it odd that the book everybody is assigned to read is On Walden Pond.  Yes, of course, that whole thing about going back to nature, separating ourselves from the pressures of a materialist life, striving for simplicity, is an important strain in American literature, in all the literature of the West, really–but it’s not unique to Thoreau, and it doesn’t represent the three quarters of his life that he lived in town.  Nor is it the most significant thing he wrote, if by “significant” we mean “had an impact on events in the real world over time.”

For that, you need two esays, “Civil Disobedience” and “Slavery in  Massachusetts.”  The first sets out the rationale behind all American protest movements, the good, the bad and the ugly.  It was the rationale for the abolitionists, and the rationale for the Civil Rights movement, and, yes, the rationale for the movement against the Vietnam War, and the draft. 

And it’s a rationale that can go off the rails.  The abolitionists weren’t just nice, middle class men and women who gave speeches and staged protests.  They included John Brown, who led an armed uprising against the United States government–a real one, complete with guns, battles and body counts.   You may like his cause better than you like the causes the Black Panthers and the Weathermen supported,  but the reasoning isthe same, and so are many of the tactics. 

As for “Slavery in Massachusetts,” it’s the single most powerful indictment of the Fugitive Slave Act ever written, and to the extent that this country ever developed the conviction that black and white should be equal not only under the law, but as human beings, this was one of the galvanizing expressions of it, and one of the few to last.

I don’t understand what it is, exactly, that causes this situation.  I do know that we cannot do without the Emersons and the Thoreaus, because when they’re good they’re the best of us.  Maybe there’s something in human nature that will not allow sensible people to see clearly to the root of injustice, that makes sensible people equivocate, as Hawthorne did, even if the face of what should be unequivocably intolerable. 

Hawthorne’s philosophy and theology were much more traditional than Emerson’s or Thoreau’s.  His great grandfather had been the chief judge in the witch trials at Salem, and Hawthorne maintained an essentially Calvinist sensibility all his life.  He did not think man was perfectable, and he had a finely tuned ear for the siren song of original sin.  He was a good and solid conservative, even though he thought he wasn’t, and he was adamant that men and women must uphold the law as written if society is to function at all.  All those things are much more likely to keep society running smoothly and well for most of us most of the time than Emerson’s utopianism or Thoreau’s political resistance.

But Hawthorne was iffy about abolition, and he definitely did not accept the idea that black men and women were his moral equals.  And he isn’t the only example of this particular constellation of values we can find in that period.   The same constellation recurred in the civil rights movement.

Every once in a while, we get incredibly lucky and land ourselves with an  Abraham Lincoln or a Martin Luther King, who breaks the mold and combines the right instincts with the right thoughtfulness. 

Then we get change that we may or may not believe in, but that we definitely need.

Written by janeh

December 11th, 2008 at 6:40 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'The Sixties'

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  1. My first impulse was to respond to ‘it keeps us from inventing mythologies’ by saying that however much I support the teaching of history and the the history of ideas, I’m beginning to think that mythologies, even or maybe especially provably false ones, have an important place in a stable human society. I know, I know, not an original idea, but I always thought it was nonsense. Now, I’m not so sure – Canada’s ‘peace, order and good government’ and the US’s ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ can both underpin stable societies that work reasonably well for most of their citizens, even though we can all think of cases in which, for example, Canada had poor government or the US lacked liberty for all citizens so that bit of myth is demonstrably false.

    Anyway, then I read : ‘sort of spiritual mush made up of feeling one with the universe and finding heaven inside each man’. Now, THAT’S not limited to the sixties! That’s the mainstay of a lot of people today from those who say they’re Christian to those who say ‘I’m not religious but I’m spiritual’!

    I know little about the Transcendentalists – getting all mystical about nature and the innate perfection of Man doesn’t appeal to me in the least, perhaps because it doesn’t make sense to me.

    I see the liberal/conservative; revolutionary/law-abiding dichotomy as an essential balance. As you say, we need both of them. But maybe I’m just showing my own prejudices – I tend to think that revolutionary side of the equation is by far the more dangerous. Or maybe I think that way because I live in a world in which many people think terrorism is acceptable, and terrorism, after all, is only an extreme version of the ‘revolutionary’ side of the see-saw.

    If we are to look at the extreme side of ‘law-abiding’, though, things aren’t good either. I was talking recently to friends who fled a middle-eastern country a few years ago who told me of the increasing economic suffering there – and the complete inability to influence the government because of course anyone who speaks up dies or disappears into prison.

    We need the balance. We need strict controls on violent revolution along with a government forced to respond to calls for change. Sometimes people forget that.


    11 Dec 08 at 7:52 am

  2. This has nothing to do with the sixties. I’d vaguely heard about a public lecture in Toronto, but given it little thought other than wondering what on earth Mia Farrow was doing in what was advertised as a debate on international policy – especially since the best-known and most-respected Canadian soldier (retired), Rick Hillier, was also on the list.

    Now I’ve come across the report on it:


    It’s kind of wishy-washy – but I don’t have the answers either. I don’t think I’d vote for intervention, but that’s because I think it only works in two cases – the intervenor has a very strong internal ally already in place, which gives the intervenor legitimacy) (although usually if you have such a suitable figure in place, you don’t have a failed state in which the population is engaged in genocide). Or you are out to create an empire, and are willing to put up with all the downsides of that – insurrection, nationalist movements, conflicts between the need for resources at home and in the distant parts of the empire, all the political difficulties that seem to arise from having a variety of political and/or cultural entities held together in a core/colony arrangement.

    No one, well, no one except the people who convince themselves that they will be destroyed by a group of their neighbours, unless they kill first, wants genocide. But what’s the solution? How on earth CAN *anyone* make a successful (stable, manages to organize things so that most of the population can live peacefully and feed and house themselves) country? We did it by evolution. The US started with a revolution. A lot of Europe seems to have had a combination, with the emphasis on periodic revolutions. Other countries seem completely unable to work out an answer, and I don’t think a history of colonialism is the only reason. There are places that have been battled over for centuries.

    It’s easy to sit in a lecture hall Toronto, and say we should protect people from genocide. It is even possible? I might say I’d like to protect people from genocide, too, or from any form of murder, but I sure don’t know how I, or my government, or the international community, could manage in in some distant corner of the world!

    And does anyone else see the essential neo-colonialism and paternalism of ‘if you can’t run your country properly, we’ll do it for you?’


    11 Dec 08 at 11:23 am

  3. That’s an interesting link Cheryl. I have to agree with the general – don’t send in troops unless ypu are prepared to see the troops and civilians killed.

    And yes, I did think it sounded like the 19th century excuses for colonialism. Something does have to be done about failed states – consider the pirates operating from Somalia. But I have no good suggestions.


    13 Dec 08 at 12:36 am

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