1960: When Art and Literature Confronted the Memory of World War II and Remade the Modern

1960: When Art and Literature Confronted the Memory of World War II and Remade the Modern
by Al Filreis

Columbia University Press, New York, 2021
352 pp. Trade, $140.00; paper, $35.00; eBook, $34.99
ISBN: 9780231201841, ISBN: 9780231201858; ISBN: 9780231554299.

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
January 2022

It is possible to give an idea of the main lines, hypotheses, and style of 1960. Yet disclosing the richness and subtlety of its analyses is an arduous task within the limits of a short review. Readers will have to explore, discuss, question, and appropriate this book in their own way, everyone following one or several of the many threads that Al Filreis, director of the Center for programs in contemporary Writing and codirector of PennSound at the University of Pennsylvania, has gathered in this impressive study which offers countless new perspectives on the shift from the conservative 1950s to the progressive, often radical 1960s.

The choice of 1960 as the turning point of this history is of course springs immediately to mind. Cultural historians do not always have the sixties started in 1960. Some will go back in time and hint at the Rosa Parks bus boycott (1955), the beat writers, or the first public reading of Ginsberg’s Howl, while others give more weight to later events such as the assassination of JFK, the first tour of Bob Dylan or, why not, “Love me do” (which was 1962). Filreis’s plea to consider the 12 months of 1960 as the real starting point of the end of postwar deradicalization (the topic of the author’s previous book) is more than convincing, given the sheer number as well as great importance of the numerous innovative, avant-garde works produced or released in this year, not only in literature, but also in media such as painting, jazz, cinema, television, photography, musical theater. The approach of Filreis’ book is highly interdisciplinary indeed, mixing high and low culture in often surprising ways (the best example of it being the multilayered reading of the Sound of Music, not only the Broadway musical but the whole network of artefacts and debates that preceded and followed the first show that put Nazis on stage). Filreis has no problems in driving this point home: all those who still matter today have made in 1960 works that changed both their own way of doing and thinking and the place and role of art in society, with always a double emphasis on, first, the need of experimentalism and social as well as ethical commitment, second, the even stronger need to link innovative form and political involvement. The methodological decision to only close-read works from one single year is intellectually and rhetorically smart. Although Filreis takes great care of contextualizing all artists and materials, he also manages to keep an almost exclusive focus on these 12 months. Moreover, he succeeds in presenting the works made in 1960 and the stances taken that same year as works and stances that are deeply revealing is what the then changing in the broader cultural fields: First by reading all of them through the same lens, that of the reshaping of the longtime censored radical agenda; second, by cross-referencing and disclosing less-known connections (between James  Baldwin and Paul Celan, for example).

It is however the new interpretive perspective that gives this book its full importance. Filreis does not only highlight what had been marginalized or made invisible by the then wide-spread acceptance of Cold War ideological streamlining and general enthusiasm, after the war and postwar years of deprivation, for the successes of the economic reconstruction and the rise of consumer society. He also clearly identifies what is the common ground of the 1960 avant-garde production: the denunciation of the Western (American, British, European) refusal to recognize its responsibility in the emergence and sometimes survival of fascism and anti-Jewish and anti-black racism as well as its no smaller accountability for the refusal to acknowledge the traumas of all those voices that had been silenced in the free world consensus, where many authoritarian and racist aspect of the fascist era continued to survive.

Equally interesting are Filreis’ analyses of the contemporary misreading of what was so new in 1960 and of society’s resistance, not necessarily to the works or the authors themselves, but to the radicality of their message, for instance by a very selective reception (a stunning example is the way in which the first poems by John Ashbery were anthologized in France) or reframing them in ways that helped ignoring their novelty (for instance by labeling them as purely subjective and individual or by narrowly stressing their formal achievements without taking into account the collective and political layers of many works).

The book’s last chapter, on the exceptional career and achievements of literary critic and theoretician Marjorie Perloff, is a perfect example of Filreis take on what changed in 1960, namely the end of deradicalization and the sudden return of avant-garde and radical politics (in the case of Perloff, the fight against anti-Jewish racism and misogyny in American academia). Filreis wonderfully moves from biographical elements, with the traumatic Amrican exile of a young child after Austria’s Anschluss in 1938, to the intellectual and cultural agenda of Perloff after 1960, rightly underscoring the role of Perloff’s criticism of the left-leaning but formally mainstream authors of that period. Her debunking of Lowell, whom Perloff had started to admire in the late fifites, is a textbook example of constructive self-criticism and the growing awareness of the absolute necessity of anti-mainstream thinking and writing. At the same time, however, Filreis does not forget Perloff’s lasting resistance to the blind anti-Americanism of someone like Adorno. In addition, the rereading of Perloff’s career is also the springboard for the already mentioned reinterpretation of The Sound of Music, a story not unlike that of Perloff’s family which proves to be more than just kitsch of “kidsical” (musical for/with kids).

1960 is not always easy reading, for sometimes one may feel dizzied by the author’s encyclopedic take on virtually everything in culture, building bridges between high and low (readers are supposed to accept to go from Hannah Arendt to Oscar Hammerstein II, and vice versa, for instance). Yet each page is thought-provoking and contributes to a challenging rewriting of the history of the new avant-gardes.