Theodore Roszak, scholar of ‘60s counterculture, dies at 77

Posted July 15, 2011, at 8:21 p.m.

LOS ANGELES — Theodore Roszak, a historian, social critic and novelist who saw the youth rebellions of the late 1960s as a movement worthy of analysis and its own name — the counterculture — died July 5 in Berkeley, Calif. He was 77.

The cause was cancer, said his wife, Betty Roszak.

Roszak was an author and longtime professor at California State University-East Bay whose best-known work defined an era: He wrote “The Making of a Counter Culture” (1969), a nonfiction best-seller that popularized the word “counterculture.”

Drawing on the works of influential thinkers such as Herbert Marcuse, Paul Goodman and Alan Watts, the book examined the intellectual underpinnings of the social tumult that began in the mid-1960s and extended into the 1970s — the campus protests, love-ins, rock music and psychedelic drug fests that infected masses of young people and bewildered their elders. The youths comprised “a cul ture so radically disaffiliated from the mainstream assumptions of our society,” Roszak wrote, “that it scarcely looks to many as a culture at all but takes on the alarming appearance of a barbaric intrusion.”

But where some saw a chaos of protesting college radicals, hippie communards, Deadheads and drug pushers, Roszak saw a serious movement with possibly redeeming value, a youthful opposition to the “technocracy” that he said was at the root of problems such as war, poverty, racial disharmony and environmental degradation.

“This was a time when there was this immense cultural upheaval in the country. But what was this? Was it just a lot of freakish behavior? Was this … an unintended consequence of the Vietnam War? There was no conceptual handle on it,” Todd Gitlin, a Columbia University professor who wrote a popular history of the 1960s, said in an interview Tuesday. “People were trying to figure out, ‘What is this thing that has come upon us?’ He named it. That’s why the book was a best-seller.”

Roszak wrote or edited more than 17 books, including “The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology” (1992), a pioneering work on the relationship between planetary and personal health.

He delved into the movie industry, religious fundamentalism and the dark side of technology in several novels, including “Bugs” (1981), “Flicker” (1991) and “The Devil and Daniel Silverman” (2003). “The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein” (1995), inspired by the unconventional life of Mary Shelley, who wrote the original Frankenstein story, won the James Tiptree Jr. Award for its exploration of gender issues.

“He was always trying to see under things, what does it all mean,” said Ernest Callenbach, a fellow Berkeley writer whose 1975 novel “Ecotopia” was also a counterculture landmark.

The son of a carpenter, Roszak was born in Chicago on Nov. 15, 1933. His family later moved to Los Angeles, where he attended Dorsey High School before earning a bachelor’s degree in history from UCLA in 1955. He received a doctorate in history from Princeton University in 1958 and became an instructor at Stanford University in 1959.

In 1963, he joined the history department at California State University-Hayward (it became Cal State East Bay in 2005). He took a leave of absence a year later to edit a small pacifist newspaper in London. He was there in 1964 when the free-speech movement erupted at the University of California-Berkeley.

By the summer of 1967, Roszak was working on a series of articles for the Nation about the campus protests that had spread across the country. He was still in London when he began hearing of strange happenings in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, an epicenter of hippiedom in the so-called Summer of Love.

While most media reports focused on the wackier aspects of the spontaneous cultural event that drew thousands of youthful seekers to the San Francisco Bay Area, “by then I was convinced there was more to these matters than sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll,” Roszak recalled in a 2007 Chronicle of Higher Education interview. “Not that sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll didn’t matter. … But coul d that statement be given a more accessible philosophical translation? That was the task I set myself” in what was to become “The Making of a Counter Culture.”

Critic Robert Kirsch wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Roszak’s analysis of the ideas shaping the countercultural mindset was “critically sound, thoughtful and tough-minded.” Robert Paul Wolff in The New York Times agreed that Roszak “may be right that our young people are fleeing from the ideal of reason,” but he found the author too quick to blame all of society’s ills on a “scientific world-view.”

When “The Making of a Counter Culture” came out, Roszak was, by counterculture standards, too old to be trusted — he was 35. He was sympathetic to the movement’s ends but not uncritical of its means, particularly the popularity of hallucinogenic drugs. “He had his feet on the ground,” his wife said. He is also survived by a daughter, Kathryn Roszak, and a grandchild.

In 1998, he retired from teaching but continued to train a scholarly eye on the children of the ‘60s, who are now senior citizens. Focusing on what he called the longevity revolution, he produced a kind of sequel to his 1969 book 40 years later. He called it “The Making of an Elder Culture.”

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