Each Easter I run a quiz for the family: the quiz has questions on many topics but tends to reflect European and American culture; it includes two music rounds and one picture round. The quiz can last for a good two hours and the teams compete with each other to ‘win’.
The family likes the quiz and, at its conclusion, they each get some sort of reward for their efforts. For example, for one of my daughters I have chosen three vinyl records and a bottle of Bulleit Rye; One of the records is by Memphis Minnie, one is from the celebrated Blue Note club in New York and one is by Judy Collins. The one by Judy Collins entitled ‘In my life’ was produced in 1966 and hailed as a new departure for a folk singer. (I bought the record in 1967 and was always slightly puzzled about it: I think this was the year when the counter-culture really took shape and the record was marked by an emerging originality.)
For some of us – including me – the 1960s allowed our imaginations to ‘take off’; we were freed to live and mediate experience through our imaginative powers. It was a good time and often an exhilarating time.
By chance at the same time I selected Judy Collins’ (1966) ’In my life’ as one of the vinyl records for my daughter I came across an old edition of a paperback book by Alison Lurie. The book was first published in 1962 and my copy looks terrific. Its title? ‘Love and friendship’.
The book is a fascinating read because it reveals aspects of East Coast American culture that prefigure the counter-culture of the mid and late sixties. She shows us (in 1962) the divide between men and women, girls and boys; there are marked class distinctions and there are patterns of interactions that are subtle, intricate and constrained. There are old stoves, galoshes – and people write letters; no one says ‘cool’ or ‘like’ … but the people are – well – they are primed for the ‘new’.
I think the book is tremendously interesting because it can be seen as a description and analysis of a culture that no longer exists. There are glimmers of its legacy in works such as Joan Didion’s ‘Where I was from’ and the kind of aside mentioned in ‘Billy Lynn’s long half-time walk’ when its author refers to ‘old money’ – but overall, the world that Alison Lurie describes and portrays is gone. The contrast say between ‘Love and friendship’ and any of the more contemporary work by Bret Easton Ellis underlines the striking shift in aspects of the American way.
Lurie’s book is excellent because, in addition to showing us how certain Americans lived and thought in the years immediately preceding the Hippy movement and the Woodstock phenomenon, it includes an exploration of relationships – but it also has moments of intellectual reflection – the kind that make me stop to consider what I have just read; Here are two of them:
In a letter reflecting on teaching at a college somewhere on the east coast of the USA a writer-in-residence responds to the judgement that a fellow academic’s whole career has been ‘a failure’ with the observation:
‘What is success, after all, but the proof that one has come to terms with society.’
‘Writing comedy is a dangerous project; One … lays oneself open to the fatal accusation of having no sense of humour, to which there is no comeback. The tragic position is much more impregnable; critics who are not moved by one’s tragic works can always be called shallow; they have, obviously, no sense of compassion.’
In addition there are references to Emerson and Thoreau and Descartes and there is an insight into how the humanities could be taught imaginatively and rigorously. (There was no internet; students had a few books and actually were required to demonstrate that they could think for themselves. Alison Lurie even provides her readers with a sample assignment from an Humanities course!)
This kind of book and the type of education it profiles stands as a sociological document – as an indicator of the striking shift that has taken place in American culture (a shift paralleled in UK culture). And this takes me back to the Judy Collins LP ‘In my life’: on it she includes songs by Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Bertolt Brecht, Jacques Brel, Donovan as well as John Lennon and Paul McCartney. In each song the lyrics have a depth of meaning. In those days we listened to the songs and tried to make sense of the words. Those words cultivated our imaginations and our sensibilities. As a result we could, if we wished, detach ourselves from the material world. We could live through ideas, hopes and dreams. I think it is far harder to live like that nowadays.
P.S. The photo is taken from International Times – when the music was changing and the walls of the city shook.