American Hippies

American Hippies
W. J. Rorabaugh
Cambridge University Press  239pp  £17.99

Unfortunately for the hippies, posterity favours those who provide articulate accounts of themselves. Theirs, writes Rorabaugh, was a movement that appeared ‘suddenly’ in the mid-1960s without manifesto, produced no great literature and whose greatest cultural legacy are ‘drug song lyrics’. ‘Sources’, he admits, ‘are a problem.’ 

That said, there is no paucity in cultural representations of hippies. Recently, the movement served as the recurring yin to the suit-wearing mainstream-in-decline-yang of Don Draper and co in the television series Mad Men. At best, hippie is a byword for naivety and, at worst, ‘full of shit’. By the mid 1970s, even rock music, the counterculture’s medium of choice, had turned on it, as expressed in Jonathan Richman’s Modern Lovers song I’m Straight. Canonical countercultural icons (not the contradiction in terms it might once have seemed) are rarely associated with the movement. The tie-dyed Grateful Dead do not enjoy the same reputation as the monochrome Velvet Underground. Reasons for ridicule are many. In addition to the vagaries in hippie philosophy, the great unwashed were 97 per cent white and middle class, whose wilful rejection of their origins struck a sour note with those minorities who aspired to the privilege they eschewed. Like all movements, the hippies had followers and leaders and the homogeneous latter had gender, class and race in common.

To what extent are the cliches lazy? Rorabaugh’s book is a concise study surveying the counterculture (he uses the definite article), but his probing of the hippies reveals no hidden depths. While sympathetic to his subject, Rorabaugh acknowledges that hippies were not always ‘right on’ by contemporary standards, so to what extent are the hippies responsible for the progressive standards by which we now judge them poorly? 

With reason, the author claims that hippie scepticism about government has gradually become the dominant view. Their distrust of authority arguably paved the way for our cynical world. Environmental consciousness might be said to have its roots with the movement, but so, too, did the negative and hindering perceptions of the po-faced eco-warrior. Then there’s alternative medicine. Rorabaugh suggests two stand-out examples of the movement’s legacy: rural communes and, less convincingly, the mindset that allowed J.K. Rowling to create Harry Potter

This is an earnest, uncynical study of a movement that has aged badly. The media ignored important aspects of hippie culture to focus on the surface, argues Rorabaugh, and hippies were famously inarticulate, leaving them as sitting ducks; indeed, when Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion chronicled ‘the freaks’, they did so from the outside. But cynicism is inevitable and where better to look than the Wikipedia page of ‘Lysergic Lenin’ and Yippies founder Jerry Rubin: 

Jerry Clyde Rubin (July 14, 1938–November 28, 1994) was an American social activist, anti-war leader, and counterculture icon during the 1960s and 1970s. During the 1980s, he became a successful businessman.

Rhys Griffiths is editorial assisant at History Today

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