Students and counter-demonstrating teachers and students engage in a free-for-all outside Columbia University's Low Library, New York 29th April 1968; (Getty)
Artillery Row

Watching the Riots: Berlin, Trilling and Bellow on the Sixties

The riots of the 1960s left a generation of intellectuals out in the cold. Will the George Floyd demonstrations do the same?

Since the death of George Floyd and the demonstrations and riots that followed, many have compared this summer with the long hot summers of the Sixties, especially 1967 and 1968. This is wrong in two respects. First, it misses out the many race riots that have taken place since, in particular, the LA riots of 1992, following the death of Rodney King, when 63 people were killed, 2,383 people injured, more than 12,000 arrested, and estimates of property damage were over $1 billion.

Secondly, the British media continues to see the Sixties through the eyes of the New Left, feminists, black writers and radicals who emerged as celebrities at the time, the generation of Germaine Greer, Tariq Ali, Angela Davis and Norman Mailer, three of whom were then still in their twenties.

But there were others who saw the Sixties very differently, older writers and intellectuals like Isaiah Berlin, Lionel Trilling and Saul Bellow. Their letters give us a very different sense of the upheavals of the time.

Lionel Trilling was America’s best-known literary critic. He was already in his sixties by 1968, and had been teaching at Columbia for thirty years. A one-time Communist, he had become a liberal during the Cold War.

In 1965, he published Beyond Culture, his first book of essays in ten years. Writing in The New York Review of Books, one critic laid into Trilling’s old-fashioned style: “Professor Trilling’s liturgical modulations once held considerable charm, seeming, perhaps, formidably “English”: Bloomsbury Square on Morningside Heights [where Trilling lived, near Columbia’s campus], to put it crudely. But the tone now is wearily genteel.”

There are signs in Trilling’s letters that he already had a sense that the new times were leaving him behind. An author, he wrote in January 1967, “who was once at the very center of my sense of literature means nothing to the young. I don’t understand why, but so it is.” But there were other more pressing issues. He wrote to Isaiah Berlin, “New York is being abominable . . . It has to do with the increasing dirtiness and inconvenience of the city, very much with the Negro situation, and some pervasive sense that everybody else in the intellectual life is behaving badly, with some derogation from good sense, even sanity.”

This sense of bafflement continued through the winter of 1967-8. On 7 January he wrote to Dotson Rader, a former student, now in his mid-twenties, “what I don’t understand is the ambiguity of your relation to the old and established . . . I find this curious – that you should make a total rejection of a way of life . . .” Their correspondence soon came to an end.

In April 1968 major student protests erupted at Columbia, including an occupation of Hamilton Hall, where Trilling had his office. “The troubles,” he wrote to a friend, “have absorbed and fatigued us utterly.” “The students seem to have been invigorated by it. To them I find myself in a strange relation – I don’t really understand what they feel, or at least why they feel it so much, and I am angry at the disruption they have caused . . .”

To many students, Trilling seemed to symbolise the intellectual and cultural world they were rebelling against. He was no Chomsky or Marcuse. His wife Diana recalled that one “zealot . . . distributed on the Columbia campus a poster of the kind which is displayed in post offices with pictures of dangerous criminals: below a photograph of Lionel was the legend, WANTED, DEAD OR ALIVE, FOR CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY.”

It is hardly surprising that in his book, Why Trilling Matters (2011), Adam Kirsch writes that toward the end of his life, “the cultural ground began to shift under Trilling’s feet.”

Isaiah Berlin was an almost exact contemporary of Trilling’s. He was almost sixty when the Columbia students started rioting. “New York – the student riots – the slowly mounting mass of black anger –” he wrote to a friend in 1968, “is terrifying.” He wrote to McGeorge Bundy on 31 May, about his impending visit to New York, “I propose to come armed with a water-pistol, and if any militant student approaches me I shall rise up against him and say that the dons have turned, the worms fight back, and douse him . . . Why cannot the professors build barricades of their own?”

The mood darkened, though, after the assassination of Robert Kennedy on 5 June. “I cannot myself hold back my tears,” he wrote to Bundy. “I really cannot bear this Hobbesian world in which no one is safe from maniacs and all forms of life tremble on the verge of collapse [my emphasis]; I long for some bourgeois stability.”

Berlin was appalled by the New Left. “What a frivolous man Tariq [Ali] is”. “Chomsky is too irresponsibly utopian.” But the students were worse:

I feel depressed by the rapid growth of barbarism . . . This generation is completely ignorant, uses mechanical formulae to dispose of anything that may be difficult or complicated, hates history on the whole . . . The old nihilists at least thought they respected science – the new ones confuse crudity and sincerity, and when culture is mentioned their hands really do automatically reach for a paving-stone. But I must not go on with this lamentation: it sounds like some decayed liberal from Turgenev . . .”

In 1969 Berlin spent some time teaching in America. “The row between the Jews and the Negroes here is very disturbing,” he wrote to Bernard Williams in March. “Columbia is in a mess,” he wrote to Maurice Bowra in April. “The streets of New York are full of Christs . . . [T]here are hundreds of them, all wild, all bearded, all very mad, Jews and Gentiles, Negroes and whites – I imagine Rome in the very last years must have looked like a little like this.” A few weeks later, he wrote to his friend Anna Kallin, “My own dear University here [New York] seems to be occupied by black militants”. He goes on to mention, “the fearful goings on at Harvard” and “the posse of twenty black men with huge rifles at Cornell, photographed by the [New York] Times, and looking really rather terrible.”

As his biographer, Michael Ignatieff, wrote, “As the 1960s turned into the 1970s, Berlin identified more and more with the figure of Turgenev, another person who had endured the suspicion and dislike of left and right.” As the young turned to political extremism, Berlin, like Turgenev, agonized about his moderate liberalism. The Sixties and Seventies were a hard time for Berlin. He came under attack from the New Left: Perry Anderson, Tariq Ali, Christopher Hitchens.

Saul Bellow, like Trilling and Berlin, was appalled by the riots in the Sixties, but took a tougher line than either. He had just published Herzog (1964) and was finishing Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970). He had been a supporter of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and wrote to the papers attacking the Vietnam War. Then came the riots in his beloved Chicago in 1968. He watched the chaos on TV, appalled by the anarchy on the streets of his hometown.

There’s a new tone to Bellow’s fiction during the late Sixties. His sympathies moved from young men like Augie March and Tommy Wilhelm (Seize the Day) to older, authority figures like Mr. Sammler, Mosby in Mosby’s Memoirs and Braun in The Old System. In one story in Mosby’s Memoirs he describes Chicago as “in ruins again”, “factories boarded up, buildings deserted or fallen”. Above all, in Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Sammler witnesses a black pickpocket stealing from someone on a bus. He follows Sammler back to his apartment building and exposes his penis, “a large tan-and-purple uncircumcised thing – a tube, a snake.” To Sammler, writes Bellow’s biographer, James Atlas, “the ‘great black beast’ is the embodiment of a new barbarism.” Bellow described the novel as a “dramatic essay of some sort, wrung from me by the crazy Sixties.”

What’s interesting about the reactions of Trilling, Berlin and Bellow, is that they all saw the Sixties as a terrible moment. The language is revealing. “The crazy Sixties” (Bellow), “The rapid growth of barbarism” (Berlin). “Abominable”, “a total rejection of a way of life” (Trilling). For a younger generation, left-wing, supporting black rights, feminist, it was the dawning of something exciting and liberating. For these older white men, it felt apocalyptic, the end of civilization.

Almost exactly fifty years on, there are riots again, young people are on the march, in the name of rights and freedom. For them this is an exhilarating moment, the chance to roll back generations of white racism and oppression. But as in the late Sixties, the battle lines are almost identical.  As I write, on social media I see the same bewilderment. Who knows who will win in the US elections in November? In 1968 it was Nixon. The “Silent Majority” shared the horror of Trilling, Berlin and Bellow. Which way will it go this November? And beyond that, who will win the next round of the Culture Wars?

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