The 1960s, Refracted

One summer over 15 years ago, three books crossed my horizon at exactly the same time. One was Greg Tate's Flyboy in the Buttermilk. The second was Stanley Crouch's Notes of a Hanging Judge. The third was Lisa Jones' Bulletproof Diva. Read simultaneously, they sent me into a fugue state. They were, indeed, a fugue: three story lines entwining contrapuntally across the same harmonic field. All of them were collections of columns from the Village Voice from the late 1970s through the early 1990s, essayistic commentary from an African American perspective, intellectually allusive, mostly on culture but also suffusively political. Each author's obsessions overlapped: the politics of black music, of style, of gender; the meaning of freedom and community -- and, most dramatically, their common psychic entanglement with a single fraught figure: LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, the black nationalist poet and jazz writer who came to prominence in the 1960s.

Lisa Jones was his daughter, the product of an interracial marriage that the integrationist "Jones" had abandoned on the way to becoming the separatist "Baraka." Greg Tate was his spiritual son, wrestling anxiously with how "the cat made me want to throw down on a typewriter in the first place." Stanley Crouch, the neo-connish former black nationalist mugged by reality, affected to despise him but was clearly too obsessed with Jones/Baraka not to have loved him -- a tangle of pathology.

Lisa Jones, Greg Tate, Stanley Crouch, Amiri Baraka ... and Rick Perlstein. For the early-20s version of myself had also long been obsessed with Jones/Baraka, with an intensity that perhaps only a broodingly alienated hyper-intellectual jazz musician from a Jewish suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, could muster.

I read those books with a soul-forging intensity, and one of the reasons can be recognized by those who know my own writing about the campaigns of Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon: I have always been haunted, oppressed, liberated by my obsession with the 1960s, and these books made up, together, a refracted argument about the 1960s. But more, they were fiercely of the '60s. Because -- permit me a paradox -- they were ferociously of the present: They were all by essayists with hungry eyes, and hungry I's, devouring the passing scene, mashing the social world down to its constituent molecules, in order to try to make sense of how this moment they happened to live in tasted, digested, and recombined differently from any other. And they were writers for whom the crafting of a style, of an original voice, was crucial to, indeed inseparable from, the way they made the world make sense.

All the other books that most shaped me to that point were similar such collections of hungry-eyed and hungry-I'ed essayists working over the passing scene. Main difference for me: Those people were writing in the 1960s. James Baldwin. Joan Didion. Tom Wolfe. Garry Wills. Even Jones/Baraka. The fact that the three books I read that summer -- come to think of it, the summer I decided I had to move to New York to become a writer -- were doing the same thing, only in my own day and age, was the significant thing. That meant it could still be done. I could write that way too.

But when I came to New York I found that the age of Harold Hayes and the Village Voice had pretty much passed -- a time when hungry-eyed editors at even the most apparently banal magazines (the chapters in my favorite 1960s essay collection, Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem, appeared in places like The Saturday Evening Post, Vogue, and Holiday) were keen to patronize young writers essaying upon the passing scene. It was the 1990s; "Choking at the Bowl: Why Do Men Have Trouble Urinating at Ballparks" was Slate's version of the new journalism. And so maybe that was how in my own oeuvre, whatever small measure of illumination I've been able to cast on the present, the kind of pieces I came to New York to write became scarce. Instead I found my voice writing about the 1960s. But really in order to be of the 1960s: to be one of them, a Didion, a Wolfe, a Wills. I throw down on what used to be called a "typewriter" in order to somehow summon the fantasy that I'm in that literary world, arguing those same arguments, immersed in that level of psychic intensity, in and about a world in which the most basic questions about reality and social organization were up for grabs, as they would have seemed to any especially alert observer who was just recording the passing scene, circa 1969.

So I write about what they write about, which happens to be the passing scene, circa 1969. Though I do so by now without nostalgia or regret, hoping that I, too, have crafted a style and a voice inseparable from the way I make the world make sense.