Counterculture in Literature: “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”

The 1960’s was an iconic decade in history for the rise of the counterculture as it challenged the societal norms of the American public. This counterculture gained traction because people were fed up with the Establishment which was the dominant group of American society that pushed for the Vietnam war involvement and the traditional rules of work and ambition. A popular youth movement, known as hippies, embraced this counterculture way of living by rejecting the mainstream American life and creating their own distinctive lifestyle. They were dropping out of school, forgoing work, celebrating, in taking drugs, participating in open sexual relations, and promoting tolerance and love all for the idea of freedom from the Establishment and freedom for the individual.

Hippies in Haight Ashbury during the 1960’s

American journalist Joan Didion had chosen to remember this controversial way of living through the material object of an essay. Between 1965 to 1968, Didion wrote articles for magazines such as The New York Times Magazine, The American Scholar, and The Evening Saturday Post specifically on the hippie counterculture of California, and then at the end of 1968, she compiled her essays into a book called Slouching Towards Bethlehem. One of her most notable essays in this book was also titled “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” It was about the hippie counterculture in Haight Ashbury, a district in San Francisco that was very well known to be one of the first hubs of this culture in the United States. She specifically had sought out hippies in this area, and talked with them about life in Haight Ashbury. She had met people such Deadeye, a drug dealer; Gerry, his old lady; Vicki, a high school dropout who was following the rock band the Grateful Dead all over California; Norris, a man on acid; and Susan, a five-year-old girl on acid. These people’s lives were influenced by the hippie counterculture that overtook Haight Ashbury, and Didion painted that picture in her writing through the use of verbal montage from her experience there.This makes her essay choppy, strange, and hard but she does so to get her point across. Life in Haight Ashbury was random, messy, and bizarre.

George Harrison, lead guitarist of the Beatles, playing on the streets of Haight Ashbury

Just as the hippie counterculture was divergent to the societal norms of America, so was Didion’s stylistic of writing and content to the stylistic norms and content of journalism. Journalists at that time wrote with objectivity, facts, and disconnection from self to situation because they believed that this type of writing was the most effective way to report a story; however, Didion thought otherwise. Her writing was characterized with subjectivity, truth, and immersion of self and situation. Because she was reporting during a unique time in history at a very particular place, she wanted that to be represented in her essay. She encountered people who dropped out of school to rebel against their parents and the Establishment, runaways, acidheads who lived in a human feces-filled house with twenty other people, and a mother who had been giving her five-year-old girl acid for a year. She was brutally honest about the experiences she had while many journalists at that time weren’t. Journalists had been romanticizing these people because they were loving, accepting, and independent; however, Didion wrote differently with these harsh realities. Didion was also unique because these realities would typically evoke distressed emotions or some type of critique; however, Didion reacted with flat, composed responses with an undertone of extreme passivity. Here is an excerpt from her essay when she meets Norris, a man who partakes in acid:

Norris and I are standing around the Panhandle and Norris is telling me how it is all set up for a friend to take me to Big Sur. I say what I really want to do is spend a few days with Norris and his wife and the rest of the people in their house. Norris says it would be a lot easier if I’d take some acid. I say I’m unstable. Norris says all right, anyway, grass, and he squeezes my hand.

One day Norris asks how old I am. I tell him I am thirty-two.

It takes a few minutes, but Norris rises to it. “Don’t worry,” he says at last. “There’s old hippies too. (94)

This excerpt is the only part about Norris. Didion doesn’t introduce him, tell more of his story, or even respond in what you think would be typical. She just uses the encounter that she had with him, tells it from her perspective, then moves on.

This lackadaisical response mimics the atmosphere in Haight Ashbury. These bizarre situations happened all around town but no one cared. Hippies did their own thing because they believed in individual freedom so if someone wanted to take acid, let them take acid.

Despite Didion’s seemingly passive responses to this incredible phenomenon, her essay was a critique of this time period, and her title and introduction of her essay alludes to this. The phrase “slouching towards Bethlehem” comes from W.B. Yeats’s poem titled The Second Coming which was written after World War I. Yeats described the post war atmosphere as a kind of apocalypse specifically like the one in the Biblical book of Revelation. Didion titles her essay from this poem because she also believed that this counterculture was like an apocalypse because these people were throwing out the societal norms that had held America for so long. She also introduces the essay with another phrase from Yeats’s poem, “The center was not holding.” Again, this is her saying that societal norms could no longer contain the people in Haight Ashbury. They pursued their own ways and partook in their own desires which Didion believed was a sign society’s destruction.

While other journalists romanticized the long-haired hippies and their freedom, Didion tore this veil by allowing the scenes that she experienced narrate this story. She encounters acidheads and runaways who left their good, stable lives behind for a place they believed would bring independence, love, and acceptance but instead brought hunger, drug dependency, and homelessness. It was the realities that many hippies faced during that time yet people didn’t know about because it was hardly reported on. Her essay was a partial and material memory of this counterculture movement. It may have not been the dominant narrative but according to Zelizer, this partial memory helps create the mosaic memory of the counterculture. Lastly, her essay is material memory because her memory exists in the world rather than in her head. It’s embodied in her unique style of writing throughout her essays that has been shared to the public which allows it to be one of the collective memories of the counterculture in 1968.

 

 

Bibliography

  1. Andersen, Alexandra. “Essay: Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion.” Daily Titan, 28 Oct. 2010, dailytitan.com/2010/10/slouching-towards-bethlehem/.
  2. Didion, Joan. Slouching towards Bethlehem. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1968. New York. pp 84-127.
  3. Fakazis, Liz. “New Journalism.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 28 Mar. 2016, www.britannica.com/topic/New-Journalism
  4. Menand, Louis. “The Radicalization of Joan Didion.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 19 June 2017, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/08/24/out-of-bethlehem.
  5. Schwartz, Carly. “Haight Ashbury In the 1960’s: A Vibrant Hippie History.” HuffPost, The Huffington Post, 16 Oct. 2012, www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/15/haight-ashbury-in-the-1960s_n_1967664.html.
  6. Zelizer, Barbie. “Reading the Past Against the Grain: The Shape of Memory Studies,” Critical Studies in Mass Communications (June 1995): 214-239.

 

3 thoughts on “Counterculture in Literature: “Slouching Towards Bethlehem””

  1. First of all, I really enjoyed your post as I also wrote about the Hippie Movement and how it was remembered by different people and their different voices. I found your description of how Didion wrote her book to be a particularly interesting site of memory, as it seemed to convey a tone that was (ironically) counter to the counterculture–one in which some of the shocking and more horrific occurrences of the Hippie Movement are exposed. I thought the reference to the apocalypse was even more interesting, and really demonstrates how the love and freedom the Hippies preached also came with a severe renouncement of the Establishment–evoking ideas of anarchy and extreme civil unrest. Overall, I thought this was a great post. My only follow up question would be why such a narrative seems to have been left out of popular media? Why were voices (particularly young voices like Didion) left out of the Hippie Movement, and how did that help serve the political mobilization of the Movement?

  2. I love “verbal montage.” I had no idea who Didion was before this essay, but now I am interested in her works and will likely look up some of her essays later on Haight Ashbury. Your essay flowed beautifully, and pointing out the specifically shocking characters that she followed functioned as a great hook. You did a great job including supplementary sources to further explain Didion’s essays as a site of memory and your conclusion was very strong. I would be interested to know how people reacted to her essays or if they were even well known enough to generate a reaction from many people. This essay, overall, was fascinating to read and hard to look away from. Great work!

    1. I really enjoyed how you analyzed the subjectivity of writing and how her subjectivity correlated to her material memory. On a side not, it’s interesting that Didion worked for various news articles such as the The New York Times Magazine, The American Scholar, and The Evening Saturday Post. For my post, I analyzed primary news sources as well written by individuals, many related to the hippie movement, after a sit-in by the Yippies (similar to hippies) at Grand Central Park. Because Didion critiqued the hippie movement in her news sources, I wonder how her news sources, her perspective and partial memory, compare to that of the news sources that I analyzed written by the hippies. In comparing that, we can see how bias, culture, and perspective play into the partiality and selectivity of memory. Overall, great work and analysis!!

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