Review: Ann Charters (ed.), The Portable Sixties Reader (anthology)

Alan P. Scott - Rants - Reviews

real gone, man

More words about the 1960s. Why bother? Well...

It took me awhile to get around to this one (from a recommendation in the Portland Oregonian, January 12, 2003). And when I did start, I was not entirely happy with the book's organization. Leading off with a lengthy self-justification, followed by a lo-o-ng section on American racism, might've been necessary but I had a hard time getting through them.

However, this tome (it's definitely on the chunky end of "portable") turns out to contain a wealth of rewarding material, arranged by theme, and providing a useful overview of the era in the words of its own participants. After her long introduction Charters mostly allows the authors to speak for themselves - a wise choice and one which makes this book a worthwhile resource.

And the Sixties do remain relevant - I found myself stopped by prescient quotes like these (both from the late Susan Sontag's essay "What's Happening in America" [1966]):

"I think there is something awfully wrong with a de facto system which allows the President virtually unlimited discretion in pursuing an immoral and imprudent foreign policy[...]"
"It's hard to lead a holy war without allies. But America is just crazy enough to try to do it."

Then there's this stanza from Robert Bly's poem "The Teeth Mother Naked at Last" (1970):

Now the Chief Executive enters; the press conference begins:
First the President lies about the date the Appalachian Mountains rose.
Then he lies about the population of Chicago, then he lies about the weight of the adult eagle, then about the acreage of the Everglades.
He lies about the number of fish taken every year in the Arctic, he has private information about which city is the capital of Wyoming, he lies about the birthplace of Attila the Hun.
He lies about the composition of the amniotic fluid, and he insists that Luther was never a German, and that only the Protestants sold indulgences.
That Pope Leo X wanted to reform the church, but the "liberal elements" prevented him,
that the Peasants' War was fomented by Italians from the North.

And the Attorney General lies about the time the sun sets.

And one more, from the same poem:

"They are dying because the President has opened a Bible again."

* * *

The Sixties were a time of hope and anger unmatched before or since. This book brings them alive again, at least briefly - and that's not a bad thing.

* * *

Ann Charters (editor), The Portable Sixties Reader. Penguin paperback, December 2002. ISBN 0-142-00194-5, US$16.00

©2005 Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.

Last updated January 16, 2005.

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