Cover image for A fiction of the past : the sixties in American history
A fiction of the past : the sixties in American history
Cavallo, Dominick, 1946-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Press, 1999.
Physical Description:
282 pages ; 25 cm
Format :


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E841 .C33 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Few events during the sixties took Americans more by surprise than the rebellion of those who were young, white, and college-educated. Dominick Cavallo pushes past the myth, disdain, and nostalgia shrouding the radical youth culture to explore how the furiously chaotic sixties sprang from the comparatively placid forties and fifties. What were the historical precedents of the political ideas advanced by Students for a Democratic Society, the largest student group in American history? Where does the hippie counterculture fit into the broad sweep of American culture and history? How does the artistic output of people like Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin correspond to artists of the past like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau? A Fiction of the Past not only connects sixties youth culture to American history, but shows how its most radical ideas and values were deeply etched in the American soul. A thrilling and important new book about a most contentious time.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

In this eclectic study, Cavallo, history professor at Adelphi University, relates the youth culture of the 1960s to longstanding American strains of individualism and autonomy. Even the supposed "organization men" of the 1950s raised their children to thrive as competitive individualists, he argues, while Beat-era hippies followed mythic visions of the wild American West. Though many of the themes in this book have been fully treated elsewhere, Cavallo's achievement is to startlingly juxtapose them. Thus Emerson's ponderings on self-reliance butt up against the Grateful Dead's psychedelic peregrinations. Bob Dylan's anti-corporate ethic borrows from early antifederalist opponents of the Constitution. And a digression on the Haight-Ashbury guerrilla theater troupe known as the Diggers puts a surreal spin on Thomas Jefferson's theories of moral instinct and social amity. In a final section, Cavallo sources the failure of the New Left in a fundamental American ambivalence about preserving economic liberty while preaching the communal nature of democracy. It's a contradiction obliquely summed up by Neil Young: "I'm lucky. Somehow by doing what I wanted to do, I manage to give people what they don't want to hear and they still come back." (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Cavallo's study is an accurate description of both the New Left and the beginnings and end of the Students for a Democratic Society, including the origins and impulses that shaped it. Cavallo offers a fresh reminder that the SDS found the Vietnam war a distraction, that its primary focus was on localism and community, with Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP) as its organizational conduit and with inner-city organizing of the poor and unemployed as its major activity. Cavallo's assessment is not only a superb synthesis of New Left nonprogrammatic, nonideological idealism, but is also justifiably critical of both ERAP and SDS. Though his argument is perhaps strained--as when he traces the communitarian emphasis of SDS back to the anti-Federalists of 1787, or when he contends that the fashions and hairstyles of the hippy counterculture were rooted in the moral anarchy of pre-Civil War frontier society--his book is for the most part a rich and stimulating account of the 1960s, encompassing the 1940s and 1950s as well. One can quarrel with Cavallo's effort to weave radical youth culture into the American preindustrial past, but his account is on balance a must read for those interested in these years. Upper-division undergraduates and above. M. Cantor; University of Massachusetts at Amherst

Table of Contents

Introduction: Problems in Making Sense of the Sixties
Part I The Sources of Ferment in the Forties and Fifties
Raising Rebels and the Cult of Security: The Ambiguous Forties and Fifties
New Bottles, Old Wine: An Archaeology of Rebellion
Part II The Sixties in American History
"Free Because It's Yours": The Diggers and the San Francisco Scene, 1964-1968
Rock and Work: Another Side of Sixties Music
The Politics of Autonomy and Community: Students for a Democratic Society, 1960-1965
SDS' Failed Quest for Community
Epilogue: The Sixties as a Fiction of the American Past