Waiting for the ’60s
The late Jigs Gardner was an associate editor of the St. Croix Review. Jigs Gardner wrote from the Adirondacks. These early essays, some of which were written decades ago, are of timeless quality.
To return to America after spending 30 years in another country is to experience, I learned, the Rip Van Winkle effect: those who have stayed put have become accustomed to changes that accumulate incrementally over the years, changes that, to Rip, are dramatic and startling. It may be that such a viewpoint can alert us to the significance of things whose familiarity has dulled our perceptions.
I went to a meeting of the Men’s Monthly Reading Club with high hopes and some doubts. Would it be a genuine literary, even intellectual evening, something I hadn’t enjoyed since I left the academic groves in 1962? I was only slightly acquainted with the members, but I knew they belonged to that wave of people who have moved to the countryside over the last several years, men in their 40s and 50s who seem to be semi-employed (or semi-retired), or who have fluff jobs with government agencies, well-off people who do not make their living by physical labor. I suppose “yuppies” would be the term. For the last 40 years I have been a farmer, most of that time on a remote farm on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, working with loggers, fishermen, and other farmers, men of substance in their own sphere. But they were not literary or intellectual, and when we moved back to the U.S. in 2001, I hoped to meet men who were, but I was disappointed. Friendly and charming as the yuppies were, they seemed shallow, hollow, their conversation nothing more than politically correct received attitudes. I was being unfair, I thought; I had spent very little time in their company, I hardly knew them, and besides, surely members of a reading club had to have literary interests.
The meeting was at Mike’s, and he led off with a “funny” New Yorker story, embarrassingly bad, which made him laugh so much someone else had to finish reading it. Everyone agreed it was hilarious. I kept my own counsel and told myself to be patient; this was just the beginning. Charlie read passages from a ’60s book about house-building — profound insights into the Zen of a two-by-four, and bits from Thoreau. Charlie said how basic, how elemental building was, and Bruce said it expressed one’s self, and Mike said one discovered one’s self. Bruce read an incomprehensible manifesto (I think) by an architect, which he couldn’t explain. That fell flat. The next reading, a diatribe against religion from an old Whole Earth Catalog, touched the chords of memory: How it awakened nostalgia for the heady days of the ’60s when they were in their teens, probably envious onlookers, a time that still speaks to them, as they fondly recalled, of excitement, of freedom, of experiment and open horizons. So, this is what my big intellectual night out comes down to, I thought disgustedly. As I listened sourly to another trite New Yorker story, my patience snapped.
“It’s a cliché from beginning to end. By the third sentence you know everything that’s going to be said, everything that’s going to happen,” I snarled.
The protests that followed their shocked silence were muted but insistent and I, thinking we were finally having a literary argument, robustly replied until I realized they were tying to make me understand (without quite saying so) that criticism was never to be voiced. Well, you can hardly have a collective wallow in ’60s nostalgia with a carping critic in your midst.
I had no intention of going to another meeting, but they were stuck for a place to hold it and I felt I owed them something for the original invitation, so they met in our kitchen. I opened with a reading of the concluding pages of Roger Kimball’s “Architecture and Ideology” from the December New Criterion, thinking such a fine piece of writing would impress everyone, especially Charlie and Bruce, the architects. The argument, its opinions and judgments, seemed so unexceptionable that I never gave a thought to its impact on the club members.
Big mistake. I had not taken these men seriously, I had not thought about the implications of their attitudes revealed at the last meeting. Kimball condemned the absurdities of two faddish architects, in the process enunciating a humanistic standard, a double sin: he expressed a judgment, and it wasn’t politically correct. Of course, that wasn’t the way Charlie and Bruce put it. What they said, and they said it vehemently, was that no ideas, no matter how absurd they might seem to Roger Kimball and me, should be condemned. In effect, the concept of a critical standard was itself anathema. So criticism was allowed — but only of criticism and the critical spirit. As the evening wore on, I thought of the work I could be doing, and I swore this would be my last meeting. My hopeful expectations had been foolish; men like this were never literary or intellectual, they always picked up their opinions and attitudes (they can hardly be called ideas) from right-thinking middlebrow sources, but in the past their views, I recalled, were not so uniform. Their conformity, the like of which I’ve never seen before, really struck me. Their ’60s nostalgia was telling too — all their well-worn thoughts were minted then. I had the eerie feeling that I was on a dusty stage set, listening to speeches from a play closed long ago.
How apposite that image would prove to be at the next meeting, to which I went eagerly after Mike told me a publisher would be there (I would impress him with my reading and then he’d ask if I had any more like that at home, and then . . . he turned out to be an editor of children’s books.) I was surprised to see Father Miller (“Just call me Bob”), the recently retired pastor of the Episcopal Church, and I wondered what he would read. Mike read another drearily “funny” New Yorker story, but the general quality of the readings seemed better, although certain ’60s themes — the evils of capitalism, environmental disaster, consumerism — made their appearance. Then Father Miller took the floor.
“As some of you know, I just got back yesterday from Washington where I participated in the gigantic anti-war rally.”
“Good for you!”
“Way to go!”
“Now I want to read an editorial from The New York Times that gets it just right.”
The editorial predictably praised the rally, but Father Miller was most pleased by its assertion that the crowd represented “mainstream” America, and he kept reverting to that conceit. His listeners nodded vigorously; it was very important for them to think they were representative of American society, but I wondered at their credulity when the only speakers Father Miller could recall were those famously mainstream figures, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. I don’t suppose they realize what a small percentage of the local population they represent, nor do they know how disliked and resented they are by the country people. Then Father Miller made a snide remark about President Bush, and that was the signal for what I can only describe as a general frenzy as everyone loudly added their near-hysterical denunciations. Listening, what I heard was a yearning for the glory days of the past, but their words had the studied quality, combined with bizarre deviations of an imperfectly remembered script: the media are in a conspiracy to keep the truth from us by playing down the anti-war rallies; the media are controlled by three or four people (nods, dark looks, murmurs); where’s Teddy Kennedy now, this should be his moment.
These men have never recovered from the ’60s, which is why their thoughts are so childish — if their rallies don’t garner as much attention as those of the ’60s, there must be a media conspiracy — and they are desperately conformist because they sense their sudden vulnerability. Bush was despised as the antithesis of their beau ideal Bill Clinton; now he is hated as the architect of the patriotic, militant response to terrorism. They greatly fear the ’60s aren’t coming, and they are right — they died on 9/11.
Meanwhile, Mike announced that he’s getting a teepee, and he thinks it will be big enough for club meetings. *
“’Tis the business of little minds to shrink; but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death.” —Thomas Paine *