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The Making of the Counter Culture

July 15, 2019
The Making of the Counter Culture
Tony Mendoza, Dennis Hopper, and Peter Fonda in Easy Rider, 1969 (Raybert Productions / Columbia Pictures)

Get ready. We are soon to be inundated with thoughtful essays and NPR segments commemorating the 50th anniversary of 1969’s consequential events, the majority of which happened between July and December. It seems fair to say that those most eager to devour every column inch and minute will probably be baby boomers whose sense of nostalgia has grown in league with their neuralgia.

Beginning, of course, with the moon landing, expect retrospectives devoted to the Manson murders, Woodstock, the Chicago 7 trial, and even Altamont, representing both the apogee and perigee of Aquarian salad days. But the 50-year milestone with arguably the most enduring impact is likely to pass unacknowledged: publication that fall of Theodore Roszak’s landmark book The Making of a Counter Culture.

In an accident of timing that is every author’s dream, Doubleday released it soon after that standard bearer of mainstream culture, the New York Times, said that Woodstock “had little more sanity than the impulses that drove the lemmings to march to their deaths in the sea.” And also asked, “What kind of culture is it that can produce so colossal a mess?”

Roszak fortuitously had the answer: a counter culture. His book received serious attention from reviewers, was a topic for talk-show hosts such as Dick Cavett, found itself on university syllabi, and became a National Book Award finalist. It was a publishing sensation.

And yet, I suspect you’ve never read it. And almost certainly never even heard of it.

Why? There’s a good reason. Uniquely in history, it wasn’t the book’s content that left a permanent footprint. It was the title. Seriously. Those two words, “counter culture,” which we now write as counterculture, were Roszak’s original coinage. And yet their instantly idiomatic quality made it seem as though they’d always existed side by side. Plus, they sounded sublime in a way that “hippies” no longer did.

Which explains why, in an era when going viral meant you were contagious, the self-flattering neologism was adopted overnight by millions of boomers, from Berkeley to Cambridge and all points north and south, to describe their brave stand against the “Establishment.”

There is a poetic irony to the boomers. They were the first generation to watch itself grow up on TV. They were the primary target audience of most popular entertainments during their youth. In adulthood, they quickly seized control of mass media, journalism, Hollywood, and academia. And yet, to this day, boomers harbor a vestigial sense of belonging to a “counterculture” rather than being the dominant culture.

So why do we all know “counterculture” but not the book that named it? The short answer is that the title made the text irrelevant. A longer answer is that it was the book people owned but didn’t read, put off by the mix of florid and opaque pop sociology.

Anyone who did cut through the thicket would’ve happened on some otherwise disqualifying examples of the era’s wrongthink: Rock music was “difficult to take.” Timothy Leary suffered from “a most unbecoming egotism.” Jack Kerouac—whose death that October coincided with the book’s publication—shouldn’t have been taken seriously. Roszak also insisted that the counterculture had been born with Allen Ginsberg’s 1956 poem “Howl” instead of the obvious choice, 1953’s movie The Wild One, in which motorcycle-jacketed Marlon Brando is asked what he’s rebelling against and then replies “Whaddya got?”

When he wrote it, Roszak, who died in 2011, was a history professor at California State College Hayward (now called Cal State University, East Bay). “As a subject of study,” his preface begins, “the counter culture with which this book deals possesses all the liabilities which a decent sense of intellectual caution would persuade one to avoid like the plague.”

A cliché in his first sentence foreshadowed a lack of caution over the following 300 pages—whose most insightful moment, unfortunately, was an accidental homage to another writer whose facility with language and shrewdness about the counterculture far surpassed his own. That moment came with Roszak’s senseless phrase “ectoplasmic Zeitgeists.”

Since ectoplasmic is used incorrectly and didn’t appear in Roget’s Thesaurus in a context unrelated to cell biology, the reasonable presumption is that Roszak was stealing inspiration from Joan Didion’s 1967 Saturday Evening Post essay “California Dreaming.” After visiting a think tank where celebrities discussed world problems, Didion memorably recorded overhearing “the kind of ectoplasmic generality that always makes me sense I am on the track of the real soufflé, the genuine American kitsch.”

Inadvertent or not, Roszak’s conjuring of Didion highlights what made his book a forgotten success. Though nearly the same age—Roszak was born in 1933, Didion in 1934—their takes on youth culture were disparate. Didion had spent the spring of 1967 investigating San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, where she chronicled chaos and moral decay in her groundbreaking essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” taking her title from the last line of Yeats’s apocalyptic poem “The Second Coming.” (Its title would later name the collection of her essays that also contained “California Dreaming” and others well worth reading.)

By contrast, Roszak liked what he saw enough to buy foursquare into the Age of Aquarius: “[T]he primary project of our counter culture: to proclaim a new heaven and a new earth so vast, so marvelous that the inordinate claims of technical expertise must of necessity withdraw in the presence of such splendor to a subordinate and marginal status in the lives of men.” (He continues with more ectoplasmic generalities that lead to the real soufflé.)

Subsequent events proved Didion right: parents feeding 3-year-olds LSD did not lead to heaven, new or old. But right and wrong are immaterial when legends become facts, and this legend had been printed on Roszak’s book cover.

While Didion’s essay continues to be read and admired, only Roszak’s title lives on. With those two words, “counter culture,” he had constructed a durable narrative that defined a generation in the moment and perpetuated it for decades. The idea of having been forged in a counterculture still carries the tincture of romance for boomers who are nothing if not nostalgic for the major events that shaped them. Like aging rockers in concert carping about the Establishment between songs you hear every day in the supermarket, many of those who came of age in that era still cling to a mythology of being perpetual outsiders.

It is not entirely crazy to wonder if the notion of “flyover country” as a scary place originated with Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper’s cinematic motorcycle ride across the American landscape—counterculture antiheroes murdered on a Southern highway by small-minded rednecks for the way they looked.

As it happens, July 14 is the 50th anniversary of Easy Rider, too. It was the first counterculture film sensation, grossing more than $60 million on a budget of less than $400,000. One suggestion for an updated remake would cost even less and could gross even more: two men walking from the Bronx to the Battery in New York City wearing MAGA hats. How far would they make it alive?