Letters from the Archives is a series in which we highlight past Atlantic stories and reactions from readers at the time.
The hippie movement was “easier to see than understand,” wrote Mark Harris in his September 1967 Atlantic Monthly article “The Flowering of the Hippies.” In Haight-Ashbury that summer, people came from all over to see the men who “by design or by accident resembled Jesus Christ” and the women who “gave flowers to strangers.” (In total, there were about 75,000-100,000 of these “flower children.”) Harris, a San Francisco native, described a scene “characterized by flourishes, spirals, and curlicues” and a mix of “Mexican chalecos, Oriental Robes, and red-Indian headdress.” But he wanted to do more than take in the chaotic visuals. Beneath the surface, Harris saw a lack of cohesion and direction. The hippies, he wrote, “had plunged themselves into an experiment they were uncertain they could carry through.”
Harris explained that the flower children were mostly middle-class Americans—“boys and girls with white skins from the right side of the economy.” They flocked to Haight-Ashbury in search of a breeding ground for a subculture that emphasized “community.” But while some hippies were intent on creating a utopian society dedicated to peace and love, Harris observed, others were simply there for “the pursuit of pleasure” and the “gorgeous hallucinations.” Without a strategy to implement the former’s communitarian goals, most participants were seduced by the latter’s hedonistic habits.
The social changes the hippies did try to implement within Haight-Ashbury did not always resonate with the residents, who had originally welcomed the nonconformists. Extreme anti-establishment beliefs meant the hippies rejected government organizations—such as the health department and housing agencies —that benefited the neighborhood (and particularly its minority communities). Even as the hippies denounced police violence, they attracted cops with their drugs, runaway children, and hazardous housing conditions. By “disaffiliating with all persons and all institutions but themselves,” Harris argued, “they disaffiliated with all possible foundations of community.”
In the end, though, some good came from these tensions. Harris referenced a speech from a Haight-Ashbury resident who noted that out of these differences arose “an area of understanding and mutual appreciation.” The hippies’ rejection of middle-class conformity reminded locals of their tendency for “material distractions.” And, as hippies engaged in public dialogue, Harris reported, “they forced the city to examine and modify standing practices,” such as its police methods, use of public facilities, and laws governing marijuana. The “summer of love,” Harris wrote, had forced the hippies “to assess their community, their quest, and themselves,” a valuable undertaking whether it lasted only through August or well beyond.
Atlantic readers had plenty to say about Harris’s distillation, and about his subjects themselves.
Kathleen Carey from Omaha, Nebraska, was “unaccustomed to such unusual communal living.” Harris’s piece, she wrote, was simply “most informative,” and provoked an interest in learning about “how other ‘established’ communities react to such innovations of moral and civil laws.” Ross Clark from Ithaca, New York, regarded “‘The Flowering of the Hippies’ [as] the best article on the subject I have read anywhere.”
Some took issue with the hippies, even if they respected their goals. Harry Shamoon from Great Neck, New York, thought it was a “cruel mockery of the poor” for the hippies to “play games of poverty,” as Harris had described it, and also a “highly symbolic sacrificial gesture.” He believed the hippies’ movement was a “reaction to the decadence and materialism of American society,” but worried that “in destroying the bourgeoisie, they were more than literally destroying themselves.”
Another reader felt something needed to be done about it all. Dr. Patricia Emerson Wanning, from Saugerties, New York, wrote, “I’m thinking of organizing a mother’s march against Benjamin Spock, with a simple request that he set up housekeeping in the Haight-Ashbury.” According to Wanning, Dr. Spock was to blame for the “happy irresponsibility” of the youth. Mothers who were “avoiding the pitfalls of rigid training methods” learned from earlier generations looked to him for advice on how to parent. Wanning said that Spock, in turn, “gently guided” parents to teach their children “to have no hidden resentment and go to bed ‘feeling good inside.’” As a result, Wanning argued, the youth had “no other criterion for judging situations” besides what brought them pleasure. “He should be privileged to enjoy the fruits of his labors,” she concluded.
Others credited the movement for having achieved positive change. A.C. German, a professor of criminology at California State College at Long Beach, wrote that Harris’s observations about police attitudes and practices were “most proper and pertinent.” He affirmed that the San Francisco Police Department had adapted their harsh policing when they discovered that methods such as clubbing, arresting, and restrictive laws weren’t “answers to the frustrating problems of non-violent nonconformist behavior.” He concluded that police began to understand that “to harass our youth, peace demonstrators, and our minority groups is to mass-produce ‘cop haters.’”
While Carey hoped that the “seemingly abundant group of inventive minds” might lead to a “profitable end” for America, Shamoon believed it was “tragic” that the movement was “too weak to withstand inevitable strangulation by middle-class culture.” He noted that use of “hippie lexicon” was growing, and pointed out the irony of the fashion industry’s ability to turn their dress into a trend: “Goods from Asian and African countries are imported by profit-minded businessmen and sold as ‘psychedelic’ ornaments.’” Despite the hippies’ desire to be different, Shamoon asserted, American capitalism had found a way to appropriate the psychedelic experience.
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