W.J. Rorabaugh American Hippies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015) Pp.239. Paperback: ISBN 9781107627192 £17.99, Hardback: ISBN 9781107049239 £54.99
Proclaiming its title against a bright, tie-dye backdrop in swirling, psychedelic font, the visual appearance of W.J. Rorabaugh’s latest work could be said to somewhat underplay the scholarly worth of its contents. This is, however, perhaps fitting given its subject matter. Where recognised at all as something separate and distinct from the era’s climate of activism, the counterculture has often been portrayed as a colourful, but ultimately frivolous sideshow within broad histories of the 1960s, and it is in this respect that the account offered by Rorabaugh differs. American Hippies instead seeks to provide its reader with a sustained analysis of the movement’s many facets, whilst simultaneously maintaining an unbiased distance – thus, for the most part, successfully evading a problem that appears to have plagued many of its predecessors: the tendency to nostalgically romanticise the counterculture’s sense of optimism, or, conversely, make its supposed naivety the subject of cynical critique.
Prior to writing American Hippies, Rorabaugh dedicated a work to the early 1960s which focused on the social changes that occurred during the years of the Kennedy administration. In Kennedy and the Promise of the Sixties, the historian discusses the uniqueness of this period in American history lodged, as he sees it, between the more conservative 1950s and “the frenzied, often raucous, and even violent era that followed.” While here he floated the possibility that the ‘Sixties’ can be considered to have begun as late as 1965, in this more recent study he posits that the seeds of the counterculture germinated far earlier. Whilst tracing many of the tenets of hippiedom back to the Beat Generation, with their emphatic connection with African American culture, open attitude towards drug use, and embrace of free, sexual expression, Rorabaugh asserts that the increased progressiveness of mainstream society was, in fact, the principle catalyst for the counterculture’s eventual emergence. This is in spite of its overtly oppositional stance, as reflected in the core Hippie desire for “self-emancipation from the larger culture” (15) – again, a yearning inherited from the likes of Kerouac and Ginsberg.
As the historian points out, however, the crucial difference between the Hippies and the Beats was a matter of numbers. Although countercultural membership can be described as somewhat nebulous, the volume of young Americans who, during the mid-1960s to 70s, ‘tuned in and dropped out’ by growing out their hair, running away to San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury, forming communes, or even regularly attending mass festivals and love-ins, was comparably vast. For Rorabaugh, and indeed many others, the size and spread of this phenomenon was symptomatic of a societal restlessness. Born into a period of prosperity which could not indefinitely sustain itself, in part because of the swelling population, the maturing generation of baby boomers began to question the high expectations that had been placed on them, in terms of education, career and family. Rather than kicking against society, in Rorabaugh’s analysis the counterculture can be thought of as indicative of a broader attempt to reshape its values and mores, with the historian largely shunning the oft-repeated notion that the hippies were simply over-privileged children, rebelling in spite of their enjoyment of an already unprecedented amount of freedom (although it’s vital to note his acknowledgement, and discussion, of the counterculture’s almost entirely white, middle class make-up. “Non-whites” he claims, “rejected being hippies,” (2) while the hippies themselves frequently appropriated elements from minority cultures, problematically identifying with their status as ‘outsiders.’) Rorabaugh instead situates hippie attitudes and pursuits within a continuum of socio-cultural permissiveness arising from the 1950s onwards, citing, for example, the gradual relaxation of censorship, the increased acceptability of artificially alternating one’s mood (albeit via medically prescribed stabilisers/enhancers), and the sexual revolution brought about by the eventual mass availability of the pill.
Moving beyond the origins of the American Hippies, Rorabaugh devotes his subsequent chapters to the key areas of countercultural life, namely: drugs, music and spirituality; bodies, sex and gender; alternative/anti-establishment politics; and finally, communal living. Marshalling a variety of sources, as well as concisely covering an impressive amount of ground, the historian details the diverse aspects of each of these elements. Running throughout such discussions, are however, a set of unifying themes: authenticity, individuality and community. Whilst the former are intrinsically linked via the hippie emphasis on self-discovery, the desire for togetherness inevitably clashed with this heightened focus on individualism. On this basis, Rorabaugh positions the rural commune movement as a climactic point in which it was finally acknowledged that a hippie utopia was unlikely to flourish within existing social spaces – and, perhaps more crucially, that a policy of total inclusion was not always desirable. Beyond the in-house squabbles that plagued even the most selective of communes a larger, underlying conflict also occurred along gendered lines.
Despite the hippie embrace of androgyny in terms of appearance and dress, domestic organisation was still viewed as women’s work and, according to Rorabaugh, the limited authority of female communards within communities which they virtually ran propelled many towards a separatist feminist stance. The development of radical feminism is, however, just one of the legacies the historian identifies as an offshoot of the counterculture’s “cultural revolution” (225). Alongside contributing to what he appears to view as a continuum of increased societal permissiveness, bringing with it a gradual toleration of difference in its many forms, Rorabaugh asserts that the counterculture was to have an eroding effect on the American faith in governmental authority. As well as detailing the development of personal computing, a technological revolution with its origins in the hippie distrust of corporate monopolization, he also alludes, fleetingly, to a possible link between aspects of Reaganism and the countercultural aversion to state intervention in matters of personal freedom. Whilst this latter notion is fertile ground for discussion and would have benefited from further unpacking, overall American Hippies provides a clear, encompassing overview of its subject and, as a result, will be of interest to new and more expert readers alike.
 W. J. Rorabaugh, Kennedy and the Promise of the Sixties (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), xix.
 Rorabaugh explains the particular fascination with Native American culture as follows: “They thought of themselves as analogous to the American Indians because they believed themselves to be inside the United States but not truly of the United States” (83)