Shards of God: An Epinician to the Heroes of the Peace-Swarm

Article excerpt

It was like a flying saucer landed.... That's what the sixties were like. Everybody heard about it, but only a few really saw it.

--Bob Dylan, qtd. Crowe 21

Forty years from now the Yippies and those who took part in the Peace-swarm of 1967-68 will be recognized for what they are, the most important cultural political force in the last 150 years of American civilization.

--Ed Sanders, Shards of God ix

Writing in 1970, Ed Sanders predicted that it would take some time for the true impact of"the peace-swarm" to enter into the American consciousness. Thirty years on, one is struck, however, by the fact that the writing about the antiwar protests of 1967 and 1968 that has endured was contemporary and written by participants themselves. The best known accounts are probably still Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night (1967) and Miami and the Siege of Chicago (1968) and pieces by Jean Genet, Terry Southern, and William Burroughs published in Esquire in November 1968. Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin presented their versions of events in Revolution for the Hell of It (1968) and Do It (1970) respectively. Other responses include Allen Ginsberg's Planet News (1967) and The Fall of America: Poems of These States, 1965-1971 (1972) and, lesser known, Ed Sanders's novel Shards of God.

Looking at these works together, shared preoccupations and images are evident--notably contemporary events presented in relation to traditional American myths about heroism. Indeed, a tendency to look back to an idealized past occurred in writings by opponents and supporters of the war alike. Supporters represented Vietnam in terms of a mythology of pastoral retreat and the New Frontier--a wilderness in need of taming, a symbolic landscape in which Americans could once again act out their special destiny. Opponents of the war retained the idea of Vietnam as a symbolic garden but conceived of American involvement there not as the civilizing mission of the pioneer, but as a mass technological and bureaucratic violation--inappropriate behavior for the true American, who instead must "bring the war back home." But all identified a desire or even a need for heroic action as part of the American psyche. Abbie Hoffman, for example, writes in Revolution for the Hell of It: "America lost its balls in the frontier and since then there have been no mighty myths and now we hunt for them in lonely balconies watching Bonnie and Clyde" (53). Quoting this passage, Todd Gitlin argues that Arthur Penn's 1967 film launched "a kind of hero cult, a stylized great plains myth version of Huey Newton and Che Guevara, in gripping color" (65). Certainly both Hoffman and Rubin styled themselves as latter-day Western heroes. And in their accounts of the antiwar protests of the late sixties, Ginsberg, Mailer, and Sanders are also, in ways very different from each other and from Penn, interested in exploring the relationship between heroism and Americanness. While Ginsberg and Mailer found heroism in the Emersonian view of the writer as (heroic, American) Representative Man, Sanders went back to a preromantic view of the writer as someone who was there, observed, and recorded but who was not himself the hero.(1) Ironically, however, Sanders was more deeply involved in the antiwar movement than either Ginsberg or Mailer. Active in pacifist protests since the early sixties, he was a key figure in the Pentagon exorcism--with his group the Fugs, he led the chanting of"Out, Demons, Out!"--and in the day-to-day organization of Yippie. It was Sanders who proposed the idea of a free music festival in Chicago during the Democratic Convention (Farber 4).

Although the works mentioned above shared a fascination with notions of heroism in war, they differed considerably in their location and interpretation of that heroism. These differences emerge primarily from the positioning of the author relative to the events described and from the framework (in other words, the genre) in which the events are described. …