As a young child, I fancied I might become a naturalist or a museum curator; perhaps I would train for the law like my father. By the summer after eighth grade, as I contemplated high school, thinking of right vocation, my interests had grown in other directions, though the reader may justifiably doubt whether I was developing toward greater maturity or toward some more unexpected and perhaps more perilous end. The most attractive professions, it seemed to me, were those of the revolutionary, the mystic, and the poet.
My reading was certainly to blame for these predilections. Apart from poetry of all eras and climates, I had been devouring Elizabeth Underhill’s books, with their generous quotations from the Christian mystics, their stories of events magnified with the lens of the marvelous, their demonstrations apart from authority and tradition of an ongoing experiential relationship between the individual and the cosmos. To go into trance and emerge enlightened! Here Vedanta, Buddhism, and the Dao could agree, and I could survey realms of Christian tradition that had no place in the tiresome Protestant church my family attended.
If one shortened the focus from Ultimate Reality to the social network, the hero was the organizer. I had long memorized the songs on Almanac Singers Talking Union; I loved the story of Debs in Dos Passos’ USA and that of Big Bill Haywood in his autobiography. The great moral struggles of the period, the civil rights and anti-war movements, were well in the future. (People speak loosely of “the sixties.” At the time I received my B.A. in 1967, SDS was small, demonstrators were still more likely to be mocked than cheered by fellow students, and every time I donned my NLF button and sat at the anti-war table in the Student Union, I enjoyed a day arguing with young supporters of the war. By the spring of 1970, of course, things had changed.)
In the spring of 1960 I was avidly following the presidential campaign. Probably because of his party’s name – the Minnesota the Farmer-Labor-Democratic Party -- a remnant of the brief surge of the progressive movement in the 1920s -- I fancied I supported Hubert Humphrey, though he had been a major actor in the purge of leftists from the party that allowed its coalescence with Democrats in 1944. Even in junior high school I should have pegged him for a frozen cold warrior, yet I lay in front of the Miss America model television set my parents had acquired not so long before, totaling the delegate votes on a form the Chicago Tribune had provided for its readers, and disappointed to see Kennedy chosen.
In my town, where the John Birch Society and the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade were active, the Republican Party considered itself moderate. (It was in fact more broad in those days.) So, though I had decided I was a socialist several years earlier, campaigning for Kennedy remained satisfyingly adversarial. Upon volunteering, I found that the paucity of progressives opened many fascinating opportunities. I not only telephoned and stuffed envelopes, I gave speeches in bleak suburban strip malls in a van equipped with a marvelous loudspeaker. I was delighted to be among those threatened with arrest for trespassing into the precincts of private profit to distribute leaflets. Named precinct committeeman for a couple of the many areas that had no Democratic presence, I knocked on doors to introduce myself (just turning fourteen that summer) and more than once was told that I was the first Democrat the householder had ever seen in town.
The Party’s organization in DuPage County was indeed struggling. On higher levels bureaucrats saw no reason to waste resources in territory so clearly controlled by their adversaries, so, apart from a lack of popular support, the local group received virtually nothing from the state or national party.
Not even candidates. Our congressman was a feckless former sheriff Elmer Hoffman, but no Democrat cared to meet certain defeat by opposing him. Our candidate, Hayes Beall, was a New Deal progressive if not a revolutionary and a lawyer for the Cooperative League of the USA. Recognizing the difficulty of recruiting volunteers in the suburbs, he brought with him a team of agitators from Chicago including a folksinger who sang such catchy songs as
He should be down in Washington,
but he’s in Springfield,
makin’ a lobby
for the Sheriff’s Asso-cia-tion.
What’re we going to do with Stratton, [the sitting Republican governor]
What’re we going to do with Stratton,
What’re we going to do with Stratton,
Ear-lie in the morning?
He had other songs, for instance about civil rights, that he never sang in public. One recounted Martin Luther King’s recent arrest in Atlanta: “If Jesus came to Atlanta, they’d throw him in the jailhouse, too.” He surprised me by saying he usually voted Socialist. When I asked him his address, thinking I could visit him in Chicago, he claimed not to have one. When I asked where he slept, he said “in doorways.” He was doubtless just putting me off, but I was impressed.
My heart, though, was already with the non-parliamentary left. I attended rallies in Chicago for Kennedy but also for Fair Play for Cuba and the National Committee to Abolish HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee). I can remember joining very small demonstrations at which the Chicago Police Red Squad photographed every participant individually and exchanged pleasantries with the regulars. I wrote to the Bay Area Students’ Committee Against HUAC and received a heap of literature, including a lengthy and detailed expose of the lies in Operation Abolition, a propaganda film made by the Committee itself and narrated by Congressman Francis Walter which at that time was being shown in American Legions, church halls, and school auditoriums.
The movie, of course, was meant to demonstrate the threat posed to Americanism by left-wing activists and motivate local citizens to join as active community anti-Communists. Many venues in the right-wing suburban enclave where I lived exhibited the film, and I attended most of the showings, armed with my data from Berkeley. I was stirred by the footage of passionate demonstrators shouting “What are you afraid of? Open the doors!” as they tried to penetrate the hearings, then sit down and sing “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Then, after the showing, the real fun began. The host for the evening would invite questions, expecting a few inquiries about the best techniques for ferreting out subversives. I would raise my hand and ask about the deceptive editing and the patently false statements of the voiceover. The presenter would invariably be someone who knew nothing about such details and had never heard the accusations against the film. How could I lose? I sometimes annoyed the presenters to such an extent that they refused to call on me. Though part of no organization – I did recruit a friend or two to join me at times – I delighted in the role of a righteous mischief-maker. It was one I and others were to elaborate for the decade to come.
That fall I began high school in a lovely castellated structure on a hill over a charming lake. In my era the stereotype of the old-maid school-teacher had still a bit of reality. virtually all elementary school teachers were women, and many were indeed unmarried (though my mother, too, was a lifelong teacher). In junior high men appeared teaching science and math (as well as shop and physical education), and, by the time I reached high school, there was a group of young men, many of them fresh from graduate school, teaching a variety of subjects. Among them was a marvelous cultivated English teacher (whom I now realize was surely gay), a man who created a Latin American History class (and set his students to marveling at all the American interventions – we really had had no idea), and a fellow named Thamm.
Mr. Thamm sported a little chin beard, itself astonishing enough, but additionally significant in that it led to rumors that he was Jewish (in a town where Jews could not buy houses). Beyond that, he was sufficiently dedicated to education (and heedless of his career) that he hosted periodic gatherings at this house to discuss topics of social or cultural importance. Once, though I heard about it only at second-hand, they had even talked about homosexuality.
The superintendent of the district, who had long been principal of the high school, was a fanatical right-winger who, word had it, had refused to lower the flag at the death of FDR, considering the president a socialist menace. When we heard that Mr. Thamm was not to return the next year, we had no doubt that this was a case of political repression. (As far as we really knew, though, the cause of his departure may just as well have been instead his wish to return to graduate school.) I set my alarm for 4:30 a.m. and typed petitions protesting his unjust dismissal. Doing a few versions and using carbon paper, I managed to make eight or ten pages to bring to school.
People loved to sign the petition. Within a few days I and a few cohorts had collected over five hundred signatures, a good quarter of the student population. After stopping in at the DuPage Press to guarantee publicity, we made an appointment with the assistant principal who was sensible enough to accept the petitions graciously, though he might have discarded them once we exited. Had university administrators been as wise, many of the campus struggles of the latter part of the decade never would have happened.
Eager to be active in the miniscule left movement of the day, I sent in a membership by mail to the Student Peace Union; I located the I.W.W. office in Chicago, and the offices of other Old Left groups, and made the rounds visiting them, to discuss events of the day and of the past. A friend whose father was vice-president of a major American corporation invited a speaker from the Socialist Party to speak in a private gathering of sympathetic students at his house. Unless my memory deceives me, they sent Michael Harrington to speak to a half-dozen suburbanites in the wealthiest county in the Midwest. We were very serious and even taped the session on a reel-to-reel machine and later, for a few weeks at least, went over it like scripture. One of the participants let word of the gathering leak to his parents, and they proceeded to try to denounce the father to his employers, while remaining anonymous themselves. Harrington, of course, was hardly a revolutionary. Having come up in the right-tending Schachtmanite Independent Socialist League, he was to become prominent in Kennedy’s White House before his anti-communism hardened into views no one would consider progressive.
Thousands of other Americans could retail similar anecdotes. In retrospect, these straightforward vignettes may provide some depth to the voice of the 1962 Port Huron Statement which opens with the words “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.” In some passages the statement is closer in language to some Dada and Surrealist manifestos, condemning, as it does, not the material sufferings of the protesters, but their alienation, denouncing the “apathy” and “emptiness of life” fostered by American capitalism.
Astonishingly, the New Left the document calls for actually materialized for a few years. SDS and other groups flourished, as long, at any rate, as the Selective Service System threatened young men with forced participation in a vicious colonial war. The ideals that millions had espoused when history forced them to choose evaporated for the most part when the pressure was off. The visions and ideals of the sixties gave way to unapologetic greed in the mainstream, while punk nihilism made sixties intoxication seem wholesome by contrast at least in retrospect. Dwight Eisenhower came to seem positively benevolent in contrast to the corporatist extremes of Reagan and George Bush fils.