I know a lot of Daily Kos people were, especially in the corners of the site where I spend a lot of time. You see the initials DFH all the time. Even if you weren't a Hippie, even if you didn't move to San Francisco in the summer of '67, I'm sure you're familiar with some aspects of the Hippie culture. It was a general dissatisfaction with the sameness and conformity of mainstream American culture, it was pacifism and an opposition to all wars and it had a spiritual side, a search for some other way of knowing that led to Eastern philosophy. That culture didn't just erupt spontaneously in Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco. I don't mean to imply that all Hippies were avid readers, but the San Francisco Hippie culture did have literary roots. Many people place the origins of Hippie culture in nearby North Beach in the '50s, where so-called called "Beat" poets and writers hung out. It's true that before Kesey there was Kerouac and the literary link between the Beats and the Hippies has been acknowledged by the participants. It's a matter of record. But the Beats had their influences too and I believe the Hippie culture can ultimately be traced back to the writing of one man, Henry Miller, the World's First Hippie.
The project had been conceived as early as 1935. Air-Conditioned Nightmare was to be "a loaded gun at the head of America." In 1940 Doubleday agreed to publish it and gave Henry an advance of $500, part of which he used to purchase a 1932 Buick. The Air-Conditioned Nightmare is a collection of essays about Miller's cross-country trip in 1941. Before Kesey and the Pranksters and the bus, before Kerouac and Cassady, Henry Miller was on the road looking for America. He drove the car down south to Mobile, went back to New York to see his ailing father, then started his trip by train with stops in Cleveland, Youngstown, Detroit, Chicago and Pittsburgh. He did not like the great industrial cities.
It was in a hotel in Pittsburgh that I finished the book on Ramakrishna by Romain Rolland. Pittsburgh and Ramakrishna – could any more violent contrast be possible ? The one the symbol of brutal power and wealth, the other the very incarnation of love and wisdom.The above quote is from the chapter entitled Good News! God Is Love!. Note that he's been reading about Ramakrishna. Henry had an interest in spirituality. Early on it was Madame Blavatsky and Theosophy but he read widely and later settled on Taoism after reading Tao Te Ching and Zhuagzi. Typical Hippie, am I right ? He was passionate about Astrology too, think Age of Aquarius. Here's another quote from Air-Conditioned Nightmare, same chapter as above:
We begin here then, in the very quick of the nightmare, in the crucible where all values are reduced to slag.
I am in a small, supposedly comfortable room of a modern hotel equipped with all the latest conveniences. The bed is clean and soft, the shower functions perfectly, the toilet seat has been sterilized since the last occupancy, if I am to believe what is printed on the paper band which garlands it; soap, towels, lights, stationery, everything is provided in abundance.
I am depressed, depressed beyond words. If I were to occupy this room for any length of time I would go mad – or commit suicide. The spirit of the place, the spirit of the men who made it the hideous city that it is, seeps through the walls. There is murder in the air. It suffocates me.
The saddest sight of all is the automobiles parked outside the mills and factories. The automobile stands out in my mind as the very symbol of falsity and illusion. There they are, thousands upon thousands of them, in such profusion that it would seem as if no man were too poor to own one. In Europe, Asia, Africa the toiling masses of humanity look with watery eyes towards this Paradise where the worker rides to work in his own car. What a magnificent world of opportunity it must be, they think to themselves. (At least we like to think that they think that way!) They never ask what one must do to have this great boon. They don’t realize that when the American worker steps out of his shining tin chariot he delivers himself body and soul to the most stultifying labor a man can perform. They have no idea that it is possible, even when one works under the best possible conditions , to forfeit all rights as a human being. They don’t know that the best possible conditions (in American lingo) mean the biggest profits for the boss, the utmost servitude for the worker, the greatest confusion and disillusionment for the public in general. They see a beautiful, shining car which purrs like a cat; they see endless concrete roads so smooth and flawless that the driver has difficulty staying awake; they see cinemas which look like palaces; they see department stores with mannikins dressed like princesses. They see the glitter and paint, the baubles, the gadgets, the luxuries; they don’t see the bitterness in the heart, the skepticism, the cynicism, the emptiness, the sterility, the despair, the hopelessness which is eating up the American worker. They don’t want to see this – they are full of misery themselves. They want a way out: they want the lethal comforts, conveniences, luxuries. And they follow in our footsteps – blindly, heedlessly, recklessly.This passage was inspired by the flags he saw waving above the factories, again from Good News! :
Only a few miles away are the hell-holes of America where, as if to prove to the world that no alien ideas, theories or isms will ever get a foothold here, the American flag is brazenly flown from roofs and smokestacks. And what sorry looking flags they are which the arrogant, bigoted, owners of these plants display! You would think that such fervid patriotism would be inconsonant with the display of a torn, blackened, weather-beaten emblem. You would think that out of the huge profits which they accumulate enough might be put aside to purchase a bright, new, gleaming emblem of liberty. But no, in the industrial world everything is soiled, degraded, vilified. It has become so to-day that when you see the flag boldly and proudly displayed you smell a rat somewhere. The flag has become a cloak to hide iniquity. We have two American flags always: one for the rich and one for the poor. When the rich fly it it means things are under control; when the poor fly it it means danger, revolution, anarchy.Same chapter, on American mass culture:
The most terrible thing about America is that there is no escape from the treadmill which we have created. There isn’t one fearless champion of truth in the publishing world, not one film company devoted to art instead of profit. We have no theater worth the name, and what we have of theater is practically concentrated in one city; we have no music worth talking about except what the Negro has given us, and scarcely a handful of writers who might be called creative.After his visit to the industrial heartland, Miller took the train back to Mobile, retrieved his car and headed west. Somewhere in Texas he got on Route 66. Car trouble in Albuquerque gave him material for a chapter he called Automotive Passacaglia about cars and mechanics. He wanted to stop and see Mesa Verde but the roads were washed out. He went on to Flagstaff and then up to the Grand Canyon where he spent nine days at the Bright Angel Lodge on the South Rim. At the lodge he met a "desert rat" who had spent time among the Navajo. Miller had immense respect for Native Americans. This exchange appears in the chapter called Desert Rat:
By way of answer he said that there were legends which predicted the downfall of the white man through some great catastrophe - fire, flood or some such thing.Henry continued his road trip on Route 66, Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino, all the way to the end. He hoped to make some money in Hollywood writing screenplays. That didn't pan out but he did end up moving to California, to Northern California, Big Sur. He lived in Big Sur from 1944 until 1963. Lawrence Ferlinghetti moved up to Big Sur in the 50s and I'm sure Ferlinghetti and his whole Beat salon, including Jack Kerouac, met Henry Miller. Henry considered Kerouac the best of the Beat writers. Would Kerouac have gone On The Road if he hadn't read Air-Conditioned Nightmare ? Would he have been a Dharma Bum without having read Henry Miller ? We'll never know, but except for the acid all the elements of Hippie culture can be found in Miller's writing, passed on through the Beats of San Francisco.
"Why not simply through greed and ignorance?" I put in.
"Yes," he said, "the Indian believes that when the time comes only those who are strong and enduring will survive. They have never accepted our way of life. They don't look upon us as superior in any way. They tolerate us, that's all. No matter how educated they become they always return to the tribe. They're just waiting for us to die off, I guess."
I was delighted to hear it. It would be marvelous, I thought to myself, if one day they would be able to rise up strong in number and drive us into the sea, take back the land which we stole from them, tear our cities down, or use them as carnival grounds.
I read Henry Miller in my 20s when a lot people I knew were reading Ayn Rand, poor deluded bastards. I think I made the healthier choice. I read nearly everything he wrote; the twin Tropics, Black Spring, The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, the whole crazed, quasi-autobiographical, slightly pornographic oeuvre. I don't know that it changed my life but if gave me a new way of looking at life, of looking at the world and the people in it. And it was liberating.
Henry Miller: A Life, Robert Ferguson
Henry Miller: The Paris Years, Brassaï
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe
A version of this diary was published on 4-22-'14 in Connect! Unite! Act!