Sunday, July 15, 2018


I have officially entered what might be called the summer doldrums. It started with a heatwave that left me enervated, not wanting either to go outside or to stay inside and read (I just watched France win the World Cup, though). It didn't help that I tried stargazing a few nights, which at this time of year entails staying up late, since it doesn't get really dark until almost midnight, and before you know it you're tired. My mind begins to wander, and I return to the question of why I am different from others in my selection of reading materials and why I am often critical of what I read. The answer, I think, starts with the fact that I didn't like reading when I was little and didn't read for pleasure until I was in my thirties. In contrast, literary culture, especially in the U.S., is dominated by people who were early readers and developed a hedonistic outlook in literary matters by the time they were ten. There is probably a gender element to this, in that females are more hedonistic than males, and males are often more analytical, hence less inclined to literary reveries. You hear again and again of female authors who were voracious readers as children, whereas literary men often seem embarrassed by that kind of identity. The fact is that literary matters are hardly ever serious, and there is often an element of escapism in them. Most of the prose produced, with the exception of some nonfiction, is written by and directed toward people who view the purpose of writing as entertainment, and this runs the gamut from children's literature to adult fiction and literary journals.

Lately I've been wondering whether my disinterest in escapism derives from being male or perhaps from Armenian influences that I inherited from my mother. The theory here is that people who have been persecuted for a long time tend to be more practical about how they occupy themselves and are disinclined to engage in pointless activities that make them feel good temporarily. I have noted that, compared to my father, my mother was extremely practical, and, in general, her family was more practical than my father's. This could have been the result of specific challenges that they faced during their lives, but I think that the English have long shown impractical tendencies, and I was reminded of this recently while reading about William Morris and his friends. I have also been thinking about Vladimir Nabokov, who has been identified as a favorite writer by some American literari, e.g. Mary Gaitskill. I only read one of his novels, Lolita, and didn't think much of it. I read it as a harsh, unperceptive satire of life in the U.S., in which he expressed, above all, a hatred for his life here. The characters were cartoonish to me, and he showed little or nothing of their inner workings. Literary culture has made it unseemly to extrapolate from a novel to an author's life, but I usually find the connection inescapable. Nabokov, a Russian aristocrat, hated having to work for a living and resented the crass people to whom he was beholden – this is transparent in Lolita. It could not be a coincidence that as soon as Lolita became a bestseller and Nabokov had some money he moved permanently to Switzerland. Perhaps Lolita was an escapist novel in which Nabokov took a childish revenge on those whom he perceived as his persecutors. However, we are force-fed the literary propaganda in which Nabokov somehow, in a burst of creativity, produced an important work of art ex nihilo. This is the naïveté that makes it difficult for me to take literary culture and its products seriously. Current research on human cognitive limitations sheds an unflattering light on this sort of literary mythology. Nabokov was a childish, self-centered author who pulled the wool over the eyes of his gullible American audience. Really, the book only sold because the subject was pedophilia, which was controversial at the time but was probably just a gimmick that Nabokov used to express his dissatisfaction.

Anyway, my complaint, which is familiar on this blog, is that I have a hard time finding things to read. Actually, I am looking forward to a detailed account of Rousseau's life, but that is better suited to winter reading, which is months away.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Going Up the Country: When the Hippies, Dreamers, Freaks, and Radicals Moved to Vermont

I found this book, by Yvonne Daley, informative regarding this period in Vermont. There isn't much analysis, and it consists mainly of vignettes of people who moved to Vermont in the 1960's and 1970's. The chapters include "The Hippie Invasion," "Life on the Commune," "Higher Education," "Food...and Revolution," "Entrepreneurship—Hippie Style," "Political Transformation," "Creativity," "Drugs," "Women's Work Reimagined" and "The Children of the Counterculture." The title comes from the Canned Heat song. In the appendix there is a list of appropriate soundtracks for each chapter. A few of the people mentioned, such as Howard Dean, Bernie Sanders, Patrick Leahy and David Dellinger, are well known. My neighbor, Jim Douglas, even makes an appearance: he was a student at Middlebury College in 1970, when they ended the semester early and canceled finals after the Kent State shootings; he was the campus Republican club president then and demanded a tuition refund. I spoke to Jim a few months ago, and, thankfully, he does not consider Donald Trump a Republican.

At the time, Middlebury was not a hotbed of antiwar activity. The hippies, radicals and artists were more closely associated with Goddard College, near Montpelier, Marlboro College, near Brattleboro and the now defunct Windham College in Putney. Middlebury College and the Bread Loaf School of English were considered elitist even then. Besides protesting the Vietnam War, nuclear reactors in Vermont and New Hampshire were targeted; in hindsight, the protesters may have been misguided, because more nuclear plants may have meant less coal consumption and less climate change – Daley overlooks this fact. There were assorted communes all across the state, whose members varied in beliefs and activities. Some proved durable while others did not. One was quite libertine, with the leader encouraging a "ten-day-marriage" between members; in a very non-back-to-nature manner, he spent his winters in Florida and returned each spring. It sounds as if the divorce rate was about 100% for young people who moved to Vermont then. Bernie Sanders, for example, got divorced after moving here with his first wife, had an illegitimate son, Levi, with a girlfriend, and later married his current wife. Some parents handled their children irresponsibly, turning them into conservative adults. Conditions for stable households were not optimal, since the hippie men usually had little income, the women were having babies and feminism began to take off in the 1970's.

The wave of people who arrived here then were part of a broad social movement that affected the entire country. Most of the migrants to Vermont were from middle-class families in Massachusetts and New York. Many had been here before on family vacations. Some, like me, were instinctively enchanted by characteristics such as the low population density, the beautiful natural environment and the pleasant but not ingratiating people. A similar history occurred elsewhere, but did not leave as lasting a mark. I am reminded of my summer in Bloomington, Indiana in 1970. I started making homemade bread. There was pot smoking, a food co-op, popular music, and some of my friends from Pelham, New York stopped by in an old school bus on their way out west. I was staying in an apartment with a friend who had dropped out of college and was trying to become a writer. An English instructor who had married a student and left his job brought his wife and moved in with us. They arrived in a VW Microbus, and he got a temporary job at a restaurant while his wife had an affair with my friend. Others were attempting to launch careers as artists. One became a pot dealer and later got arrested; now he's an electrician. Another became homeless and eventually became a Hindu monk. One friend who had led a college protest got married and divorced and later became an architect. In Indiana, as in other states, the hippie movement and antiwar protests tended to be concentrated in the large university towns and did not have much permanent impact on the state – Indiana remained conservative.

The difference in Vermont, which Daley touches on but does not explore in detail, has to do with several factors. First, Vermont had never been an industrialized state, and the anti-establishment attitudes of the hippies had little impact on the locals, who were already used to tourists. I think the lack of factories and the harsh winters made Vermonters more independent than Hoosiers, who, living in the Rust Belt, were used to walk-in high-paying jobs and were more sensitive to anti-corporate rhetoric, which could cause plant closings. The winters also helped screen out the most frivolous of hippies, if only because surviving them required resources and planning: this is not a good place to be homeless in January. Over time, the convergence of tourism and progressive ideas led to the current Vermont brand, which itself is of economic value to the state, allowing businesses to charge premiums on the presumption that Vermont products are healthier and more sustainable than those made elsewhere. The absence of large corporations also freed the state and local governments from the influences of lobbyists, leaving the door open to more radical candidates such as Bernie Sanders. Because of the small population and corporate indifference, it was much easier for someone like Bernie to gain traction here than in other states. I think that this is probably the easiest state in which to become a U.S. senator or governor, because you can practically meet all of the voters and no one is spending millions of dollars trying to defeat you. In fact, although Bernie is often in Washington, he is seemingly omnipresent in Vermont and is likely to show up in your town regularly.

Daley's approach borders on the sentimental, as the book really is about her life and the lives of her friends and family. Conceptually, much of the minutiae that she provides doesn't add much. She tries to stick with the more positive stories without mentioning many negative ones. Drug use must have been a problem, but she devotes several pages to Paul Lawrence, a crooked undercover cop who planted drugs to get convictions. There is no mention of Robert Durst, the probable serial killer who moved to Ripton in the early 1970's, when Vermont was trendy, and opened a health food store in Middlebury. Although she does touch on the dissimilarities between the locals and the newcomers, I don't think that she underscores adequately the fact that the two groups continue to carry on independently and remain segregated. While Donald Trump is more unpopular in Vermont than in any other state, he has supporters here. Daley also says nothing about the quality of the work of the artists and writers who were part of the wave that she describes. As I've said, I don't think that the quality of American writing in general is very good, and Vermont's is probably no exception. I have seen some of the artists' works and find some of them to be above average, but others are more formulaic and suitable for the tourist trade. This is not to say that the book isn't worth reading if you are interested in the topic, which is relevant where I live.