The 1960s in American Film, Literature, and Music

Professor Russell Reising
Office B-008
Office hours: from March 3, Thursday 14:00-15:00, Friday 12:00-13:00
Phone: 99 7952930 (Not after 10 PM or before 9 AM!)
All poems indicated are easily available online. Use links I have provided when possible.

March 3-4
Introduction and business

I approach my literature course with two primary goals: to teach certain works of literature (subject matter) and to help students improve their reading, writing, and analytical skills. In my opinion, the second of these goals is the real function of my presentations and our class discussions. Students who are not dedicated to improving these skills rarely do well in my classes. Students who are passionate about their studies will find that I am willing to go to extraordinary lengths to help, focus, provoke, challenge, and inspire you. Students who do not do the work will find that I have little patience or respect for those who squander their educational opportunities. Even if the particular subject matter we are studying does not greatly interest you, use the course to improve your communication and analytical skills.
I expect students to have finished all readings by the first class for which they are assigned, and I expect students to have given some thought to these works’ primary themes, mysteries, styles, etc. before coming to class. Students who have done these two things do much better in my classes than do students who don’t. I do not regard it as my responsibility to explain our works to students who haven’t done the reading. I do not accept late papers!
I assume you all know the plot, and, unless you tell me otherwise, I will assume you have a comfortable understanding of the work on the literal level. It is completely up to students to ask questions about works and/or issues that trouble or elude them. I would love it if each class could be spent with me responding to students’ questions, problems, provocations, etc.   I believe that students who struggle with the meanings of works of literature and try out their own interpretive ideas learn much more than do students who sit back and simply expect to have the materials explained. That might do in some courses or in some disciplines; I can’t imagine it being responsible pedagogy or student behavior in upper-division literature courses.
I will very rarely spend time discussing the biographical and/or historical contexts of the works we study unless they bear directly on the discussions we are having or on the analytical points I want to make. Nor should students spend time in their formal essays simply rehearsing the biography of the author or some irrelevant historical data. My courses stress issues much more than they do historical or biographical factoids. Given the richness of many internet sources for such information, I regard it as irresponsible to waste your time with insignificant details that anyone can easily find with a well-focused google search! This is not to say that students aren’t encouraged to probe the biographical or historical contexts of our materials, only that I won’t dwell inordinately on them unless they are truly germane to our approach.
I tend not to use highly organized class notes for our discussions, as I try to make each class responsive to students’ needs. This results in class discussions that some students find less organized than those they are used to or prefer. All students, therefore, are strongly encouraged to ask questions as they arise and also to take good notes.
I do not assign topics for your formal essays, but I will help you in any way necessary as you formulate and refine your topics and approaches. I believe that struggling with the material, coming up with a topic, refining that topic, and then writing and revising a paper are all crucial elements in how/what students learn when they approach a writing assignment. Professors who assign specific topics are simply giving so many take home essay exam assignments. I believe that people all learn in many different ways, reading the assigned works of literature, consulting secondary sources, participating in class discussions, and in all facets of composing a formal essay. Some students like to join in class discussions and/or ask questions; others prefer quietly processing what goes on in class. I try to make room for all learning styles, but I do, as I say above, expect students to work hard and to complete all the assignments on time.

Russ’s World Weary Guidelines for Writers of Academic Papers

(These guidelines constitute the basis of what I expect in your written work!)

  1. Unless instructed otherwise, you should assume that your audience knows the work you are writing about at the literal level, but that they can be enlightened about important themes, characters, interconnections, and other significant stylistic elements in the work. As a writer, you reveal something not obvious about the work(s) you write about. Plot summary is almost never good, and almost the only times you should be discussing the plot of the work is to provide evidence for the analytical point you are making.
  2. A good, analytical essay will begin with a thesis section in which you articulate what you are writing about and provide some sense of what is significant about the position you will be advancing. A good thesis is argumentative, i.e., it advances a position that is debatable and not merely obvious to any one who has experienced the same work of art. A good thesis teaches your reader what to expect and pay attention to, and it helps guide and discipline your own writing. Think of it as a contract between you and your reader, committing you to perform a specific analytical task.
  3. A good conclusion should never merely repeat the “main points” of your paper. Repetition and redundancy rarely characterize a good conclusion. Read almost any substantial article in almost any quality periodical; their conclusions NEVER merely repeat, summarize, or restate their main points. A good conclusion should sound conclusive, not repetitious! Good conclusions can do many things; experiment with different ways of “concluding” your paper on a strong note, not with a throw-away paragraph that merely repeats what you have already done.
  4. An analytical essay should represent the highest level of sophistication and specificity you have reached in your consideration of a work. In other words, it should report your conclusions, not your “thinking in progress.” You should never include passages that merely rehearse your encounters with the poem, as in:

“When I first read this poem, I thought it meant X, but, after deeper reading and more careful consideration, I now believe it means Y.”

This might be an accurate history of your experience with the poem/novel/story/ play/film/song/etc., and it might well be an important consideration as you plan your paper, but it has no place in a finished, formal essay. Similarly, almost all references to “I think,” “I feel,” “In my opinion,” etc. should be strictly avoided. They are useless.

  1. I will evaluate your formal essays with attention to all possible elements of the written language, from the content to syntactic, grammatical, mechanical, organizational and other rhetorical elements of your work. Please note: error free writing is not necessarily good writing! Good writing will engage the reader with solid content, logical analysis, coherent organization at the paragraph and essay level, and with lively, varied sentences that don’t lull the reader with monotonous, repetitious words, sentence structures, sentence lengths, or ideas.
  2. Most importantly, your essay should communicate your ideas about a work. Your thesis (not the “plot” of the work) will be the driving force of your paragraphs and of your entire essay. Most of your paragraphs should begin by indicating how this particular paragraph furthers the analytical thesis you advanced in your thesis/introductory section. Papers and paragraphs that begin with plot summary rarely do more than merely summarize.
  3. I will fail any student who plagiarizes any work in this course, and I will pursue their expulsion from the university. If you have any doubt at all about what constitutes academic dishonesty, please contact me before turning in any work.

 March 10-11
Reading week

March 17-18; March 24-25
Unit One: “Something’s Happening Here”
: The Graduate, The Swimmer

Novel: Norman Mailer, Armies of the Night
Albums: Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin’
Simon and Garfunkel, Bookends

First: try to understand and appreciate each work as a unique work of art. Pay attention to its style, its themes and motifs, its characters, its imagery and metaphors. Try to formulate an interpretive perspective for each work individually, and then try to related each work to the others in the unit. This reminder will introduce the study guides for each unit!

 Unit One Study Guide and Questions:
As the Buffalo Springfield song, “For What It’s Worth,” puts it, “Something’s happening here//What it is ain’t exactly clear.”   Many artists and cultural spokespeople recognized that something was changing, and they wrote books, composed songs, and directed films in various attempts to address, assess, and understand these changes. If John Fitzgerald Kennedy suggested that “the only thing that doesn’t change is change itself,” popular artists offered their own versions of this state of affairs in songs like “Change is Now” (the Byrds) and in albums like Forever Changes (Love). The United States emerged from World War II and the 1950s in a position of unprecedented economic, military, and cultural power, and yet, by the early years of the decade, cultural spokespeople were no longer confident that the society was good, moral, progressive. They, like Hamlet, thought that there was something rotten in the U.S. Like many generations before them, take the middle decades of the nineteenth century and the social criticisms articulated by writers like Henry David Thoreau (very popular in the 1960s), Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, Margaret Fuller, and Herman Melville, writers, thinkers, and artists turned their moral and ethical vision to what they believed to be the crises of the 1960s. Women, African-Americans, draftees, folk musicians, and students all began to question American values and American ideas in powerful new ways.

  1.  How do the works collected in this unit represent and analyze the nature of change during the decade of the 1960s?
  2. How do these works define “the past” and the current state of affairs in the U.S., and how do the characters in these works attempt to break away from the conventions and habits of the past?
  3. Are these changes good, bad, neutral, successful, unsuccessful
  4. What common themes and motifs link these works?
  5. Does any coherent picture emerge of the status quo, of youth, of values, of “the American way”?
  6. What other works of art can you compare with those included in our work for Unit One?

Unit Two

March 24-25; March 31/ April 1; April 7-8
Unit Two: Boys, Girls, and “The Man”
: Easy Rider, Cool Hand Luke

Novel: Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Albums: Joni Mitchell, Ladies of the Canyon
Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Déjà vu
As always, try to understand and appreciate each work as a unique work of art. Pay attention to its style, its themes and motifs, its characters, its imagery and metaphors. Try to formulate an interpretive perspective for each work individually, and then try to related each work to the others in the unit

Study Guide and Questions:
One of the dominant themes of culture during the 1960s was the emergence (maybe the re-emergence) of a unique version of individualism, often understood in conflict with conventional society. Ralph Waldo Emerson (in essays like “Self Reliance” and “The American Scholar”) and Henry David Thoreau had championed such individualism in the middle of the nineteenth century, and many counter-culture spokespeople drew on their works and philosophies for inspiration. Thoreau’s Walden, for example, was very popular reading during the 60s. Each of these works explores the tensions between individuals and conventional society. Some conclude that the “free” individual will always be crushed by the forces of conformity, while others suggest the possibility of strong individuals establishing some kind of life safe from the confines and intrusions of “the man.”

  1. What is the role of nostalgia in each of these works of art?       How do they understand/value the past (or some version of it) as a possible source of value and stability in an increasingly technological and commercial world?
  2. How does each of these works represent the individual capable of challenging the “crushing” values of the present?
  3. How do they represent the forces that try to contain, confine, alter, or otherwise neutralize challenges to the status quo?
  4. How do they represent tensions, contradictions, and inconsistencies within the characters trying to break out of or reform the “system”?
  5. What are the primary contradictions examined and dramatized in these works? How do they relate to the issues and themes of the other units of our course?

 April 14-15; April 21-22; May 5-6
Unit Three: Communist Infiltration and Nuclear Terror
Dr Strangelove, Fail Safe, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Novel: DeLillo, End Zone
Selected music provided by Professor Reising
Read essay by Professor Reising in Cultural Logic, posted at:

  1. Love/sex:the film is called Dr. Strangelove, after all! What vision of human emotions, love, and family relationships under the pressures of the Cold War does this film communicate?
  2. Suspicion: how do suspicion, paranoia, and a general environment of fear and distrust between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. figure in the film? Are there areas of commonality between the two cultures, or does the film represent some absolute difference?
  3. Machines/Technology: Strangelove and Fail Safe repeatedly discuss the impact of machines and the mechanization of military weaponry, especially through computerization. What kind of commentary do they offer on technology and human life?
  4. Religion:while not a dominant theme in these films, religion and/or a belief or set of beliefs in god figures into these scenarios of the end of the human race. What is the role of religion in these films and in other works from the Cold War era?
  5. What are the other themes, recurring images, and interesting moments in these films? Be able to discuss the films in their entirety.
  6. Strangelove makes use of soundtrack songs, while Fail Safe is one of the few movies I know of without any soundtrack music whatsoever. Think about the role of music in the one and the absence of music in the other.
  7. How do both films characterize the relationship between Americans and Soviets? What are the people like? Who is to blame for the events that both films examine?

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (original, 1955 version; new version as well, if possible)
The Blob (Original 1958 version; new version as well, if possible)
Invaders from Mars (Original 1953 version; new version as well, is possible)
The Manchurian Candidate 1962
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

This might seem like a strange grouping of films, but there is a method to the plan. Think about ways that these works address similar concerns and fears, even though their tones, styles, and explicit themes might differ significantly.

  1. What is the ultimate threat presented in all of these works? Where does it come from? How is it defined and identified?
  2. How do the “heroes” of these works establish themselves in opposition to the threat posed by “alien” invasion and infiltration?
  3. How do the tones and atmospheres of these workss contribute to their overall themes and sense of urgency?
  4. What vision of human emotions, love, and family relationships under the pressures of the Cold War do these works communicate?
  5. While each of these works suggests that mindless and robotic conformity is a constant and serious threat to American ideas of “freedom,” each film nevertheless celebrates some element of human (i.e., “American”) individualism that cannot be extinguished. How do they do so?
  6. How do these works contain scenes, characters, and situations that have a specifically Cold War relevance? What are those scenes, and how do they fit into the films as a whole?

 May 12-13; May 19-20 (Holiday no classes); May 26-27
Unit Four: Rage and Protest
: Wild in the Streets, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Novel: Don DeLillo, Great Jones Street
Poem:   Ginsberg, Howl
Albums: Jefferson Airplane, Volunteers,
James Brown,
Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud

Selected music
As always, try to understand and appreciate each work as a unique work of art. Pay attention to its style, its themes and motifs, its characters, its imagery and metaphors. Try to formulate an interpretive perspective for each work individually, and then try to relate each work to the others in the unit.

Study Guide and Questions:
Revolution, rebellion, the so-called generation gap, the “Black Power” movement, the emergence of feminism, SDS, PLP, SLF, Black Panthers, White Panthers, and many other groups and energies remain one of the enduring images from the 1960s. They all seemed to take inspiration from Marlon Brando’s (in The Wild One) answer to the question of “What are you rebelling against, Johnny?” Brando responded: “What do you got?” Fragile yet intense, revolutionary energies during the 1960s were fed by the fears of the Cold War, the war in Vietnam (and a gradual realization that the foreign policy of the United States had been much less than admirable), the draft, urban unrest, conformity (suburbs and business suits didn’t appeal to people reading Walden), oppression, social injustice, racism, and, according to some, too much affluence. Radical politics, communal living experiments, resistance to the draft, questioning of traditional gender roles and conventional images of “success” fueled much of the culture of the period.

Each of these works represents some version of political struggle against the “establishment.”

  1. How do the characters/protagonist/point of view in each work define “the establishment,” and what strategies does it employ in its struggle?
  2. How does each work depict the social/political context it explores? How do the individuals or groups represented in the work relate to that context?
  3. What would count as a successful rebellion against the status quo in these works? Do these works succeed or fail in their struggles?
  4. What connections can you draw among the works included in this unit?
  5. Beginning with Howl, these artists try to capture a broad range of emotional, intellectual, social, and political realities. Sometimes this range is so diverse as to seem almost incoherent or contradictory. Try to understand these diverse elements within each work and among the various works in the unit.

 June 2-3; June 9-10 Conclusions and Student Presentations