“It Looks Like Our ‘Literature of the 1960s’ Class at IU Might Have Been a Myth”

“Literature of the 1960s” is a class I remember seeing as a selection at Indiana University for the fall 2003 semester, a session during which I think I ended up not taking any English classes. This might have been caused by schedule constraints. I do remember, though, bandying the idea about of the class to this one dude in my geography class, an act which prompted the kind of wide-eyed question, “What do you READ?”

Now, I know I’m writing this in complete ignorance, as I didn’t take the class. But it’s an ignorance that’s pretty well grounded and justified, as it were, since, just a second ago when I googled “Literature of the 1960s syllabus,” I didn’t really turn up anything too lucid, other than one result which was centered exclusively on writings in Czechoslovakia. 

And the complete inability of this exact epoch to produce central works of American literature (let’s face it, when you hear the term “1960s” you zoom in pretty firmly on the USA as a themed locale) might be at once suggested by my fellow student’s awed, quizzical expression, and proven by the complete barrenness of the search results I mention earlier. 

The obvious explanation for this malady would be that rock and roll supplanted literature as Americans’ preferred cultural medium. And this is an explanation I will foster as my own, while we’re at it, if I may. The authoritative flagship example, or indicator, of this absolute transformation would be Bob Dylan, and reasons for this have much to do with a very phenomenologically “literary” constitution of his work. He’s already been granted the Nobel Prize in poetry, that is, and, in general, he’s got a way of forcefully producing these foundational American messages, partially with the help, and frequent use of, metaphor. One clear example would be “The answer my friend / Is blowin’ in the wind”. Perhaps his most famous song of all time, one that may have spawned not only the greatest rock and roll group ever but also the greatest rock publication, “Like a Rolling Stone,” likewise makes direct use of metaphor, though in this case giving it the form of a simile, which is a type of metaphor. 

So it’s almost like Bob Dylan orchestrated a complete heist of the entire enterprise of literature by grasping some of its key techniques and anatomical elements and applying them to this fun, new art form, which was poised to cloak Americans’ psyches with sharp political commentary and exciting rhythms. In terms of the “Literature of the 1960s” class, too, it’s interesting to consider what could have produced its genesis and temporary allure. One could probably look to, or produce the existence of, a sort of “assimilation by correspondence” fallacy, which would attempt to argue that the fact of literature, something already generally beloved by erudites (nerds), being tied to something likewise typically considered “cool,” the 1960s, would affirm a symbiotic value for the eventual composite. But the art form has been taken out of its habitat. In truth, the 1960s were too combustive of an era to nurture the creation of great literature. Instead, it was necessary, at the time, to sit back and absorb, and internalize all the changes that were occurring in the world and in society, in order to even have any clue of what to write about, or what one preferred to tackle, discursively. 

Conversely, the 1950s, though considered generally to be a decade of antiquated culture and politics, produced The Catcher in the Rye, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and On the Road by Jack Kerouac, three extremely influential and academically ubiquitous novels. What’s more, each of these three novels possesses the common postmodern thread of creation of your own existence, reality and moral terms. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield procures a hooker for the purpose of talking and confiding, Ellison’s main character illustrates the ephemeral nature of identity and Kerouac embraces the role of hobo or transient as a bastion of spiritual enlightenment.

It’s interesting, then, to note what seems like almost a stylistic regression, when it comes to the three most important works of the 1960s I’ve mentioned. The three most important literary works I could find to have spawned in the sixties are One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, To Kill a Mockingbird and Slaughterhouse-Five. There’s an earnest tale of an atrocity committed against the archetypal African-American, there’s the story of a guileless lunatic who takes on the world (like a white trash Scarface, in a sense), and the sci-fi exploration of time travel as an escape from war. Gone is the postmodern malleability and multiplicity of identity (like Holden, for instance, nurturing his kid sister and fostering explicitly homicidal inklings, within the same novel, or Kerouac’s narrator owning to an elemental restlessness which conflicted with the typically ideal disposition). Billy Pilgrim, McMurphy and Tom Robinson are all portrayed as pure protagonists — none of them can do any wrong in the eyes of the author. Here, we see before our very eyes the death of the postmodern novel, reincarnated abroad, briefly, by Flann O’Brien in 1967’s The Third Policeman, and then relegated to the background of guitar, drums and sonic mayhem. 


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