The Summer of Love Experience: Literature

This is the first in a six-part series on The Summer of Love, inspired by The Summer of Love Experience exhibit at the deYoung Museum in San Francisco.

We’ve been down this road before: an unhinged, paranoid president, wars built on lies, emboldened racists and misogynists blaring their hate through mass media into the public forum. Fifty years ago this summer, a new way of confronting institutionalized madness was proposed in San Francisco. And it spread.


(l-r) Michael McClure, Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg

On June 22, 1964, the US Supreme Court, decided in the case Grove Press v. Gerstein that Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer was a work of literature, not obscenity, and therefore constitutionally protected speech. In the preceding eight years Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and William Burrough’s Naked Lunch had been published and absorbed into the consciousness of the generation that came of age in the summer of love. In San Francisco, the City Lights Bookstore, founded by poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin, became the epicenter of the literary world’s contribution to a new counter-culture.

Words like fuck, cunt, nigger, and faggot were pried from the clutches of pornography and bigotry and re-examined under the illumination of Art. Fundamental moral issues like justice, monogamy, and patriotism were re-interpreted on the page, unleashing a seismic generational shift in attitudes and actions. Premarital and extramarital sex, as well as experimental and recreational drug use, were dragged from cautionary tales of social diseases to epistles of liberation and enlightenment. The consequences ranged from silly to profound. 


Every pre-conceived notion of mainstream society was challenged in literature: war in Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse Five; femininity and sexuality in The Feminine Mystique and Our Bodies Ourselves; race in The Fire Next Time and Soul on Ice; and the very concept of sanity in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Tom Wolfe’s classic of New Journalism, The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, a chronicle of the drug-fueled exploits of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, brought the summer of love experience to readers across the country. Underground comics, magazines, and newspapers mushroomed.

The lines between poetry, fiction, and memoir blurred and mutated. Surrealism, mysticism, free association, and stream-of-consciousness  spread from the new literary works pushing up from the underground into the lyrics of Bob Dylan, Robert Hunter, Grace Slick, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Joni Mitchell and the rest of a new generation of songwriters.

The riotous exploration and obliteration of boundaries by these poets, novelists, and journalists served as intellectual framework for other elements of the new culture.


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