Good Sixties/Bad Sixties? (part 1)

Toward the end of PAUL GOODMAN CHANGED MY LIFE comes a poignant and revealing clip from a Canadian television program circa 1969. Goodman, whose writings made him closely identified with the youth movement of the sixties, is having a dialogue with a group of young people who don't seem to understand or sympathize with him much at all. One accuses him of being alienated and confused. He ducks those charges but admits to being disappointed:
Along around the end of the fifties, the beginning of the sixties, it struck me that suddenly I was getting a lot of lies, and a lot of young people, for instance the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, were making a lot of sense, and thank God we were finally getting some living sense in American society which might make a change. Then unfortunately, as the decade wore on I became real disappointed... that they were losing the moral integrity, the keen insight, the political concreteness which I saw in 1962 and '63.
By the late sixties, Goodman had all sorts of reasons for feeling disconnected from American youth, after a few brief years of feeling intensely connected with them, and they with him. The massive cultural upheaval that was in full swing left him cold. While Goodman was always very powerfully motivated by sex, he had no use for drugs or rock and roll. As the countercultural movement grew more popular and began to bleed into the mainstream, its intellectual basis grew thinner. The tragedy of Vietnam, the urban riots, the assassinations, and the debacle of the '68 election drove radicals toward increasing stridency and bravado, into increasingly empty—or violent—talk of revolution. None of this fit Goodman's style at all.

And of course he had another reason: in August 1967 his only son, Mathew Ready Goodman, died from a fall while climbing North Percy Peak in New Hampshire. Matty was 20, a senior at Cornell, a draft resister, and a big part of what kept Paul Goodman in touch with the younger generation. He never fully recovered from this loss and it inevitably colored his responses to subsequent events. After watching cops beat demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic convention, he wrote these lines of poetry:
we are seeing scenes

reminiscent of Caligula.

How shall honest men respond to it?

Mathew would have known to tell me.

I was a champion of the resisting young,

I usually vainly tried to guide them,

more often guided by them. My liaison

is lost. Now they are right to call me senile.
The sixties, of course, remain very much with us today, a powerful source of our creativity, our consciousness, and our conflicts. These days, I think, there's a certain sentiment afoot that's curiously parallel to the disenchantment Goodman felt in the later sixties, a nostalgic effort to reclaim and recover the idealistic moment-before mood. Looking back nearly half a century, there's a temptation to create a good sixties/bad sixties dichotomy—not just among today's conservatives and squares but across the board. Not that I think this way myself, but I'm just saying it's out there. Perhaps it's because hippies make such an easy target—just as they did back in the day. Perhaps because we know so much about the decade's excesses, its earlier, embryonic moments make for an easier, cleaner nostalgia. A nostalgia for a sixties that still has some fifties in it, instead of a sixties that's beginning to give off a whiff of seventies.

You can play it like a parlor game. Try it!


Good 60s: Free Speech Movement in Berkeley (or SDS at Port Huron)

Bad 60s: Yippies in Chicago


Good 60s: cocktails and cigarettes

Bad 60s: LSD and marijuana


Good 60s: Civil Rights movement

Bad 60s: Black Power movement


Good 60s: SNCC invites white youth to Mississippi

Bad 60s: SNCC kicks whites out of the organization


Good 60s: Fab Four on Ed Sullivan

Bad 60s: the White Album


Good 60s: New York folk and early Dylan

Bad 60s: San Francisco psychedelic rock


Good 60s: Space Age

Bad 60s: Age of Aquarius


Good 60s: Allen Ginsberg as poet

Bad 60s: Allen Ginsberg as celebrity guru


And of course, fitting right in with all this:

Good 60s: Paul Goodman and Growing Up Absurd

Bad 60s: ___ well, did he have an antithesis? [Write your own on our Facebook page!]

[Go to part 2 of this piece]