Sharon Monteith. American Culture in the 1960s. Twentieth-Century American Culture Series. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008. Illustrations, timeline. xxix + 242 pp. $27.50 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7486-1947-4; $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7486-1946-7.
Reviewed by Matthew Shannon
Published on H-1960s (June, 2010)
Commissioned by Jessica Kovler (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, The City University of New York)
Moving beyond the Myths of 1960s American Culture
The literature of the 1960s is filled with information on influential figures, such as Tom Hayden, but what about Tom Lehrer? While certainly not an unknown, he has not received as much attention by sixties scholars, even though his life figuratively represents the decade better than most. American Culture in the 1960s is part of the Twentieth-Century American Culture series edited by Martin Halliwell. Sharon Monteith, who is a professor at the School of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham, augments her belief that "what was often seen as marginal or socially peripheral can prove symbolically central to the cultural shifts of the 1960s" (p. 3). The cultural legacy of the decade leads to polarizing debates, and while Monteith certainly appreciates the cultural dynamism and accentuates the long-term impact that the decade has had on American society, she is careful not to glorify subjects under examination. The book is divided into four chapters that analyze music and performance, film and television, fiction and poetry, art and photography, and social movements and dissent. There are also many recurrent themes: the tension between history and memory; the complexities, paradoxes, and dichotomies of the decade; cultural manifestations of war and society; the symbiotic relationship between various cultural mediums; local contributions to the national identity; the spectacle; and the frontier.
Because in relative terms the 1960s is recent history, much tension exists between the memory of the decade and its history. Monteith recognizes that history and memory are often difficult to distinguish and that "it is much more of a problem to define a decade about which myths and images often masquerade as cultural history" (p. 1). However, Monteith does not fall victim to these myths, and she delves well beyond the surface to provide a solid cultural history of the sixties.
She also excels at demonstrating that the cultural and political landscapes that evolved out of the sixties were certainly not monolithic. Monteith shows that while northern California gave birth to the free speech movement and the Black Panthers, the John Birch Society had its highest membership in the southern region of the state. When discussing civil rights, she argues that it is wrong to "review the period in terms of a dichotomous black leadership of Martin Luther King Jr vs Malcolm X," and to do so would "elide the complex relationship between non-violent and armed protest" (p. 160). Regarding the music of the decade, she is quick to point out that "it would be a mistake to assume that Dylan, Motown, the Beatles or the Woodstock generation were always the dominant sounds" (p. 62). Easy listening artists (such as Andy Williams), country musicians (such as Glenn Campbell), and boy-bands (such as the Monkees) were often the top-sellers. Monteith notes the more commonly assumed traits of the hippie movement, for example, its impact on the environmental movement and ecological awareness, but the more ironic aspects of hippie culture are also addressed. She quotes Warren Hickle in stating that hippies resembled young Republicans because of "their utopian ideal of American individualism and their de-emphasising of government controls and central leadership models" (p. 173). Monteith also argues that "capitalism and the counterculture were always interdependent" (p. 32). Of course, many hippies had countless records and the best stereo equipment.
Just as Monteith points out the complexities of the decade, she recasts pivotal issues, including the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, in a cultural context in the subsection "Allegories for America at War." She also shows how literature and film was used to form social commentary. While Ken Kesey's novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962) depicts the absence of logic and sanity in American society, the documentary Hearts and Minds (1974) uses high-school football as a representation of a nation that is perpetually violent and innately competitive. However, while Monteith uses literature and film to depict societal currents in the United States, she does not search deep enough to show how musicians spoke out against and turned the emotions of war into marketable sound. Music itself was used as "an allegory of war," and one must look no further than Jimi Hendrix, whose guitar improvisations during the "Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock (1969) and his song "Machine Gun at the Fillmore East" (1970) mimicked the sounds of American bombers over Vietnam.
However, she does a fantastic job in most instances depicting and analyzing the symbiotic relationship between various cultural mediums. She links cinema and music when discussing The Graduate (1967), which made a star out of Dustin Hoffman, and produced an award-winning soundtrack by Simon and Garfunkel. She also links social protest movements and photography when discussing the Kent State shootings of May 4, 1970, and John Filo's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of the incident. The link between photography and the Vietnam War is equally intriguing. The images captured brought the war home to American living rooms and played an important role in constructing collective memories of Vietnam. The war affected everyone, including the approximately 135 photojournalists who were killed in Vietnam.
Monteith also emphasizes how local and regional developments contributed to national imagery. The Motown sound certainly affected a wider audience than could be found in Detroit. Monteith also notes that Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" was catalyzed by events at a local level, but his words became national in impact. However, Monteith loses something when she does not extend this observation to show how the regional and the national had an international impact. Although she alludes to the fact that American culture was not wholly its own when she states that "the transatlantic trajectory of the Beatles is a key motif of the global phenomenon that was pop music in the 1960s," it is not adequately emphasized (p. 60).
Throughout the work, it becomes clear that America largely became "a society of the spectacle" in the 1960s. Protests, such as those at the Pentagon in 1967 and at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, helped to "form a spectacle memorialised in photograph and documentary footage" (p. 45). These political spectacles, along with the theatrical spectacle Hair (1967) and the cinematic spectacle Cleopatra (1963), defined the decade to many. Monteith argues that despite the drawbacks, the public spectacle "became an important, even expected or necessary, means of communicating strong political feelings" (p. 31). As a result, she puts the phenomenon of the spectacle in a more positive light than Guy Debord, who argued that "our time prefers the image to the thing, the copy to the original, fancy to reality ... appearance to essence," or Michel de Certeau who later referred to these societal developments as a "cancerous growth of vision" (pp. 130, 32).
Another theme aptly explored by Monteith is the frontier, particularly in the South, which she refers to as "The Eye of the Sixties Hurricane." She emphasizes the region mainly because of its racial tension, and partly because Monteith is a historian of the American South. The racial frontier could be found in the South and was depicted in films, such as Easy Rider (1969). Television was the media's racial frontier, and Monteith shows that there were many breakthroughs in the desegregation of television, particularly with the televised kiss in November 1968 of white actor William Shatner and black actress Nichelle Nichols on Star Trek. While there were real barriers on the racial frontier to be broken down, folk artists, such as Bob Dylan, wrote ballads that depicted the mythic frontier. Although not mentioned by Monteith, even psychedelic bands, the Grateful Dead, for instance, tapped into the "frontier spirit" by the early 1970s by writing more traditional folk songs, many of which centered on dramas that unfolded in the rural Midwest and the Mexican borderlands. These singers perpetuated the myth of the frontier, even though many folk singers never lived the life that they sung about. Vietnam was America's most troubling frontier, and Monteith illuminates this in her discussion of the film Green Berets (1968), which was a pro-war film starring John Wayne. Monteith argues that "Wayne was still the American hero at the frontier, wherever it was located" (p. 95). Once again, the symbiotic relationship of American cultural mediums and politics is evident, as Green Berets was met with large demonstrations by various antiwar groups.
Monteith tackles many complex topics in this book, but periodization of the decade is an issue that she addresses, but never quite comes to terms with. Politically, some scholars, including Fredric Jameson, point to the American withdrawal from Vietnam or the resignation of Richard Nixon as the end of the decade. However, periodizing the decade within the context of culture is more difficult. Scholar Arthur Marwick, in his colossal study on the sixties, periodized the decade from c.1958-c.1974, being very careful to make clear that a rigid periodization of the decade is misleading. In one of the most insightful statements in the work, Monteith posits that "if one measures the decade according to attempts by the disenfranchised to take possession of their histories, it is not yet over" (p. 7). However, because this is a study on a decade for a series on twentieth-century American culture, Monteith should articulate more clearly her thoughts on this debated historical question. It may also have been useful if she distinguished between different cultural subperiods of the decade.
The book as a whole is highly readable and engaging, and Monteith continuously includes humorous quotes and information. She discusses a time when Dick Gregory worked for the Chicago postal service and he put outgoing mail to Mississippi in the foreign mail pile. There are many great pictures, along with case studies that are separated in grey boxes but situated within the text in logical manner. There is also a useful timeline that includes major developments in eight different categories. However, the book is not without its drawbacks. There are some factual errors, for example, she states that Robert McNamara resigned as secretary of defense in 1966, but it was not until February 29, 1968 that this actually occurred. There are also some curious omissions. The developments in jazz music receive less than one sentence, and the historiography of the 1960s is also largely absent.
However, these minor mistakes and drawbacks do not take away from the overall effectiveness of the book. Monteith masterfully draws on the existing secondary literature and uses the applicable primary sources. She also emphasizes the creative intensity of the decade. Echoing the argument of Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin in America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s (2004), Monteith notes that 1960s America was "riven to the point of utter desolation over the most bitterly resented conflict it had embarked on since the Civil War" (p. 141). The memory of the Civil War was invoked in the poetry of the decade, including Angus Wilson's "Patriotic Gore" (1962) and Robert Lowell's "For the Union Dead" (1964). Monteith consistently points to the long roots of the sixties, making clear that the events of the decade did not occur in a vacuum. Henry David Thoreau's writings of the mid-nineteenth century had a profound impact on the decade; Walden (1845) marked the beginnings of American environmental consciousness, while the influence of "Civil Disobedience" (1849) could be seen in many of the decade's social change movements. There is not entirely new ground broken in this study, but the tidy organization and clear articulation of the cultural pulse of the 1960s makes the book essential reading. Monteith concludes that the "sixties figures discussed in these pages have not just faded away. While the margins are seen as symbolically central across much of this study, peripheral figures of the 1960s often entered the mainstream by the end of the twentieth century" (p. 201).
. Refer to Pierre Nora, "Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire," in "Memory and Counter-Memory," special issue, Representations, no. 26 (Spring 1989): 7-24.
. For a comprehensive study on the rise of conservatism in Southern California, see Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).
. Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, trans. Ken Knabb (London: Rebel Press, 2006); and Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
. Fredric Jameson, “Periodizing the 60s,” Social Text, no. 9/10 (Spring-Summer, 1984): 178-209.
. Arthur Marwick, The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy, and the United States, c. 1958-c.1974 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).
. For a comprehensive study on jazz music in the 1960s refer to Iain Anderson, This Is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006). Some of the more recent studies that deal exclusively with the general theme of American culture in the 1960s include Howard Brick, Age of Contradiction: American Thought and Culture in the 1960s (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001); and Edward J. Rielly, The 1960s: American Popular Culture through History (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2003).
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