Interview

'Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. But to be young was very Heaven!' -William Wordsworth. 'Hope I die before I get old.' -The Who.

There were a lot of ways to get hurt in the sixties, from fire fights in Vietnam to drug overdoses in student apartments. Most of us survived, to face a different kind of sixties risk: nostalgia. Nostalgia is probably as hallucinatory as any drug, and certainly more dangerous to the memory than any LSD induced "flashback." As a means of resisting its effects, let's evoke the skepticism of someone born after 1970, someone who might be more receptively curious about the sixties if there weren't already so many oldies stations on the radio, someone whose voice has no trace of a lump in it when pronouncing the word "Woodstock."

I suppose you were at Woodstock? No, but that's probably the wrong question to ask. Why? It'll tell you something about me. But if it's the sixties you're interested in, you should be looking in more than one place. Okay, where were the sixties? On Highway 80, between Selma and Montgomery. At Berkeley and Columbia and Kent State. In Da Nang and the Mekong Delta. Around dining room tables in suburban homes across the country, where fathers who had fought in World War II argued angrily and endlessly with their children about patriotism. In city parks like Boston Common, where 15 year-old runaways and pre-law students from Ivy League schools were looking to buy pharmacological tickets to someplace farther out. In the burning inner cities like Watts and downtown Detroit. The sixties was even, we have to remember, Dan Quayle on a golf course. So why the fixation on Woodstock? As defining moments go, it's not a bad one. A lot of people coming together to break society's rules while dancing to some inner prompting in order to get closer to some higher truthą£that's a pattern that unites the Civil Rights marches and the Anti-War protests and the student sit-ins and the rock festivals. "Higher truth?" Are you punning on "high"? I hope not. You mean you guys were getting somewhere on those various trips? I remember the pictures of Max Yasgur's land after the crowd at Woodstock had gone home. All that was left was a couple tons of litter. There was a child born at the festival, right? One real citizen by birth of Woodstock Nation? Does anyone know how that kid turned out? Or can you tell me what the sixties really accomplished? That's the hardest question you can ask me. And I won't duck it by talking about the Civil Rights Movement, which clearly succeeded in changing the face of American democracy. The momentum for the Civil Rights Movement came from African American men and women in the fifties; it was an important cause of the cultural revolution that "The Sixties" stands for, but it wasn't an effect. We sang "We Shall Overcome" at student demonstrations, but our real anthem was something more like Hendrix's "Are You Experienced?" So answer the question. You mean what did the sixties do for our country? That was the question John Kennedy said we should ask in his inaugural address at the very start of the decade. He was killed before our generation found an answer to it, and he probably never could have imagined the answer we came up with. What he referred to as "your country," we called Amerika. By the mid-1960s it seemed clear to hundreds of thousands of us that the best thing we could do for our country, for the idea of America that we believed in as much as we hated the reality of it, was burn the flag, protest the war, find ways of living and being that the system had never created and that our parents could never understand. Come off ití‚›that was what you wanted to do for yourself. You talked about tuning in and turning on and dropping out, but you were really just goofing off, running away. Maybe. But a lot of American history has been made by people who were running away. It depends on what you think they're running from—and how you value what they were running to. Isn't that the same question I just asked, what did the sixties really accomplish? Probably, but you know there's no point in my trying to settle that question for you. The sixties and I are rapidly becoming the past—but you're history. Your generation will be passing judgment on what the sixties meant. You don't get the last word, of course, but you do get the next one. Figure out for yourself what it meant. This exhibit is a great place to start because it brings together the central texts of the period, and puts them in a context that includes some of the most important 19th and 20th century precursors of the representative minds of the sixties. There are plenty of revelations here, even for old-timers like me. There are voices I'd forgotten about, relationships and patterns I'd never noticed before. And it all looks new and strange laid out as the past in these exhibition cases. This is not, thank Mnemosyne, a media event. Some of the great images from the sixties are on display, and it's probably too bad that you can't play rock'n'roll LOUD in a library. But it's easy to be distracted by mere sights and sounds. The texts, the ideas, the visions, represented here will give you a chance to decide where the sixties came from, and where that generation was trying to go. I know, I know, you want to know exactly where all this did get to. With the things that really matter, though, like love or peace or freedom, you never get there once and for all. You just have to keep going toward them. In these exhibit cases you can see the steps we tried to take in those directions. Are you asking me to trust someone over thirty? No, I'm saying you should check it out for yourself. Does that mean you are going to give me the last word?

STEPHEN RAILTON
Balding Hippie & Professor of English Language and Literature
University of Virginia