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Thursday, June 23, 2016

June 23, 2016: SummerStudying: Utopias and the Summer of Love

[To kick off the summer of 2016, a series AmericanStudying some famous summer texts and contexts. Add your responses to these posts or other SummerStudying nominations for a crowd-sourced post that’ll go down like a glass of iced lemonade!]
How two prior American utopias can help us understand the famous 60s social experiment.
Throughout the summer of 1967, between 75,000 and 100,000 people gathered in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood (and in other cities such as New York and London, but Haight-Ashbury was without doubt the movement’s center) to take part in the self-proclaimed Summer of Love. Many of the topics about which I wrote in May’s series on 60s rock played important roles in the Summer of Love, from the folk music and drug cultures embodied by Joan Baez and Janis Joplin respectively to the communal and festival atmosphere of Woodstock. Yet at the same time, the summer differed from the rest of the decade, inasmuch as it comprised the era’s most overt and self-consciously utopian experiment, an attempt to put alternative, idealistic lifestyles and perspectives into individual and communal practice. And as such, it can be productively contextualized and analyzed not only within its own period, but also in relationship to other American utopian movements and concepts, each of which can shed its own light on the Summer of Love.
The 19th century was full of utopian communities and social experiments, each of which could offer its own contexts and lessons for Haight-Ashbury. But perhaps the single most prominent, in its own era as well as into our own (thanks in significant part to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1852 novel The Blithedale Romance, derived from his own experiences with the community), was George and Sophia Ripley’s Brook Farm. Hawthorne focuses much of his novel on the romantic, sexual, and gendered experiments at Brook Farm, and those elements represent both a similarity with the Summer of Love more than a century later and an example of why utopian communities are always complicatedly connected to and influenced by human psychology and relationships. Yet if we focus too fully on those elements (as I believe Hawthorne does), we risk missing the philosophical and spiritual ideas at the heart of utopian communities, and the Ripleys’ Transcendentalism (with its Eastern influences, its democratic vision of humanity, its profound optimism) was an idea very similar in many respects to those that motivated the Summer of Love.
Ever since Thomas More (if not before, although he is thought to have coined the term “utopia” in that book), of course, utopian communities have been imagined in literary works at least as often as they have been put into social practice. One of the more interesting American literary utopias is that created by author and reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman in her book Herland (1915). Originally serialized in Gilman’s magazine The Forerunner, Herland imagines a utopian community populated entirely by women (who reproduce asexually), a society free of war, social stratification, and other conflicts. Both her central pacificism (tellingly produced in the midst of World War I) and the book’s overarching, progressive ideas about gender, sexuality, and society obviously link Gilman’s utopian philosophies to those that would drive the Summer of Love a half-century later.               Yet just as important to Gilman’s book is her vision of the utopia’s effects on outsiders—specifically, the male protagonist Van Jennings and his two friends, explorers who stumble upon Herland, are initially held captive there, and become complicated parts of and converts to its society and ideas. After all, no utopian experiment can survive if it doesn’t multiply, doesn’t extend beyond its initial community and influence a larger society. Whether and how the Summer of Love did so remains an open question, but a vital one to consider as we analyze this 1960s utopian movement.
Last SummerStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other summer texts or contexts you’d highlight?

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