‘You don’t understand,’ an American history professor once said to me of the 1960s, wagging an avuncular finger. ‘You had to be there.’ Coming from somebody who had spent his life studying the nineteenth century, it seemed a particularly silly thing to say. But then, as Gerard DeGroot points out in a thoughtful introduction to his new book, there are many people for whom the myth of the Sixties has become ‘something sacred’, a totem of high-minded idealism regularly invoked as a reprimand to our own supposedly cynical age. ‘In no other period of history’, he writes, ‘has canon been allowed so freely to permeate analysis.’
Books celebrating the youthful idealism of the late Sixties are ten a penny, particularly across the Atlantic, so it is refreshing to read one that takes a mercifully clear-sighted view of the decade. DeGroot does remember the period, but only just: his earliest childhood memory is of the morning after Kennedy beat Nixon in the 1960 presidential election, when he peered up into the California sky, hoping to see Yuri Gagarin’s capsule over San Diego. Surely too young to have been caught up in the hedonism of the Summer of Love, he has set himself a deceptively simple task. He has no overarching thesis, no axe to grind: instead, he simply gives us sixty-seven independent essays, rich in anecdote and character, many of them elegantly ripping apart the stereotypes of popular mythology.
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