The Disappearing Underground

The Disappearing Underground

When I was fourteen and fifteen, I used to ride my bike three miles to a bookshop run by people whom I thought of vaguely as beatniks. The owner was a man in his late twenties, dark-haired, bearded, scholastically gaunt. Most often, he sat reading a book on a stool by the cash register. Sometimes when he was gone his wife minded the shop, or else his mother–a friendly woman with a Russian accent and proud of her son. The family could be overheard talking on the phone once in a while, about books and music and other things (what were “Provos”?). It wasn’t brightly lit, and the absence of glare, the occasional phone calls, the aroma from many cups of tea lent the place a disheveled intimacy. One never saw more than two persons there at a time, and people came to converse as much as to buy or browse. The Dialogue Book Shop was its name; and there must have been a dozen like it around Los Angeles. It is not imaginable that any of these shops exists today–for reasons I think are worth going into.

They carried books of a certain kind–the City Lights poets, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and Corso in those pamphlet-like, unglossy volumes; a lot of titles from Grove Press and New Directions, including some of the famously banned (Naked Lunch, Last Exit to Brooklyn), alongside European authors who still seemed esoteric (Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter, Lorca, Céline). Any reader over forty can pretty much guess the rest–Kenneth Patchen, Alan Watts, Petronius–writers, as they all seemed then, attractively disreputable in their profile. Here, too, were books by social critics: C. Wright Mills’s White Collar and The Power Elite; Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd and Utopian Essays; and an array of left-wing magazines–Ramparts, the Realist, some wilder ones whose names I’ve forgotten. To see these books together, to imagine the people who read them, was to feel oneself obscurely pledged to a society within the society. Who could say how far such a counter-current might not come to matter? What made it richer was that those who possessed the clue were known to each other without external marks. Sentiment and opinion had created this dissident party of the mind as a placeless underground-emergent in the late fifties and appearing to grow stronger until the youth culture killed it in the late sixties. Its members while it lasted could materialize almost anywhere-the queue for a movie by Renoir or Truffaut or the knot of persons under a particular placard at an antiwar rally. Dissidence had a character then, familiar to its initiates, a style not a lifestyle, appropriate to a moment of hope that had not given way to fantasies of salvation.

It should have been at the Dialogue Book Shop (I don’t remember if it was) that I picked up a copy of Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man. This must have been in 1967, and I read it, a...


Duggan | University of California Press Gardels