“Theodore Roszak, ’60s Expert, Dies at 77,” read the headline of a New York Times obituary on July 11, 2011. Reducing Roszak’s life and career to digestible nuggets of cliché, the article might as well have dismissed him as a “’60s Period Piece.” As the author of The Making of a Counter Culture (1969) and The Making of an Elder Culture (2009), Roszak, the obit implied, had been a maven of radicals and hippies. Though not quite a Boomer himself (he was well past thirty when he wrote his bestselling anatomy of the counterculture), he acted, the obit explained, as an avid “cheerleader” for cultural upheaval. Tracing the arc of the Boomers from campus rebellion to retirement and senescence, Roszak had “chronicled a generation’s journey from hippies to hip replacement.”
This portrayal of Roszak as a bard of the Boomers ratified the popular memory of “the Sixties,” in which the “counterculture” figured as a carnivalesque insurrection of the id against the military-industrial superego. Punctuated by the iconic milestones—the 1966 Trips Festival, the 1967 Summer of Love, and Woodstock, all conjured to a score of Donovan, Hendrix, or Jefferson Airplane—this story hasn’t changed much in half a century. Seeking release from suburban conformity, repression, and blandness, thousands if not millions of Boomers instigated a moral andcultural revolution, a jubilee of sense and sensibility unprecedented in American history: rock music, the drug culture, sartorial flamboyance, experiments in communal living, the liberation of sexual behavior from the traditional constraints of marriage and propriety. The counterculture flouted the interdictions on desire that made Americans so inhibited and hypocritical. Hippies refused to run in the desperate rat race through the corporate labyrinth, preferring to work (if they worked at all) on organic homesteads or in handicraft cooperatives. They rejected the religion of their parents as so much stolid Judeo-Christian sanctimony, finding more spiritual depth and fulfillment in Zen Buddhism or Gestalt therapy. Against a bourgeois utopia of consumer domesticity—automobiles, ranch houses, canned goods, and patio furniture, all blessed by God in His heaven as long as the mortgage payments were on time—the counterculture posed a paradise of festivity and pleasure enveloped in mysticism.
For many, this account is a celebratory tale of emancipation and pluralism: the countercultural revolution in manners and morals cleared space for feminism, ecological sensitivity, and sexual liberation. Of course, the custodians of traditional mores take the opposite line: the counterculture was a sexual and hallucinogenic pandemonium that prefigured our decadence, undermining marriage, family, work, and faith. To historians, the hippies, beatniks, and flower children were more reformers than revolutionaries, conducting unpaid, pioneering research in the cultural laboratory of capitalism. With their moral and stylistic revolt co-opted and even anticipated by admen, they danced as the barefoot prototypes for today’s bourgeois bohemians. As Thomas Frank writes, the counterculture was “a stage in the development of the values of the American middle class, a colorful installment in the twentieth-century drama of consumer subjectivity.”
Theodore Roszak predicted this ironic denouement, but he also saw something more valuable in the counterculture. In The Making of a Counter Culture and Where the Wasteland Ends (1972), Roszak argued that the cultural ferment of his day was nothing less than a critique of modernity, a challenge to “the myth of objective consciousness,” which reduced the world to the parameters of scientific and technological rationality. In Roszak’s view, the culture that needed to be countered was much broader and more insidious than that of white suburbia. Whether pursued under capitalist or socialist auspices, the whole project of “enlightenment” and mastery threatened to impoverish and obliterate humanity as well as poison and desecrate the planet. Politics had been corrupted by a secular inhumanism oblivious to anything but productivity; it would need to be re-grounded in a beatific longing for a “new heaven and a new earth”—a world transformed by some transcendent power, usually understood as love. Rooted in his own spiritual turmoil, Roszak’s work was far more than an apologia for the ’60s counterculture. It constitutes one of the era’s most impassioned attempts to revitalize the utopian imagination.
Roszak was born in Chicago on November 15, 1933, into a working-class, Roman Catholic family. In search of work, his father, a carpenter, moved them to Los Angeles when Roszak was a child. Always struggling to make money, Roszak’s father died at the age of forty-seven, one of those countless workers who “grind their substance away at hard and dirty work for too little pay and appreciation,” as Roszak later wrote. Determined to avoid a similar fate, Roszak enrolled at UCLA, where he majored and excelled in history. He then pursued doctoral study at Princeton, where he finished in 1958 with a dissertation on Thomas Cromwell and the Henrician Reformation. (He never published it or even returned to the topic.) Roszak seemed destined for a sterling academic career; but for the next five years, his curriculum vitae was desultory: he taught at Stanford, the University of British Columbia, and San Francisco State University before settling at California State at Hayward, where he remained until he retired in 1998.
Along with his professional itinerancy, Roszak wrestled with unfulfilled longings that survived the death of his Catholic faith. Unlike his contemporary Garry Wills—who, in Bare Ruined Choirs (1972), remembered the Catholic parish of his youth as “a ghetto, but not a bad ghetto to grow up in”—Roszak recalled little of his own Catholic boyhood but “shame and dread.” Priests engaged in “ruthless creed mongering,” forcing Roszak to read the Baltimore Catechism, “a jackbooted parade of lifeless verbal formulas.” Inducing anxiety and guilt, penance was little more than “a humiliating and wholly trivial exercise in self-condemnation.” Stuck in this spiritual dungeon, an adolescent Roszak waged “mind-murdering struggles” to protect and unfetter his soul. At UCLA, he “learned the death of God like a data point in freshman survey courses,” and he quickly surmised that secularism was the only respectable position among intellectuals. Among educated people, one didn’t speak of anything so maudlin and retrograde as “the needs of the spirit.” Yet despite God’s consignment to historical oblivion, Roszak longed for something beyond: “the transcendental impulse that cried out in me for life...had to stay jailed up in my mind as a personal fantasy.” Though happy to be free of his clerical tormentors, he now felt imprisoned by atheism.