As the classic Buffalo Springfield song goes, “there’s something happening here / what it is ain’t exactly clear.” For author and poet Tom Wayman, his latest book, the novel Woodstock Rising, is partly an attempt to glean the lessons of that storied era. Wayman, an Appledale resident, read from the novel at the Selkirk College Library in Castlegar March 25, introduced to creative writing students by instructor Almeda Glenn Miller.
“Woodstock Rising is an accurate reflection of the man that Tom is, and the urgency of the time they were living in,” said Miller. “His book is an important reflection of a generation. We get thinking we can’t change the world, but he always reminds me we can make a difference.”
Wayman began by saying that until recently on his book tour, the audiences had been mostly a sea of grey hair. It’s been a fond reminder for him how many people from that era continue to carry the light of its progressive values in their eyes even as they age. But he clearly relished the opportunity to speak to the upcoming generation, given that his novel draws heavily on his own experiences as a student at the University of California Irvine in the late 1960s.
“We’ve recently seen how young people like yourselves have sparked major political change in countries like Libya and Tunisia,” said Wayman. “My goal was to write a book that talked about how all the changes we’ve come to think of associated with the 60s was also part of a simultaneous movement.”
The novel is set in the fall of 1969, beginning just a month or so after the world-famous Woodstock music and arts festival. Wayman’s campus had a chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) who – among other causes – were pressuring the US government to get out of Vietnam. Historical events are accurately woven into the fictional aspects of the narrative. The passages Wayman read of a protest at Century City in California have the crisp clarity of actual events vividly recalled.
Reminding us that the fickle nature of the global media has changed little in 40 years, already by September 1969 attention to the ‘Woodstock generation’ had begun to wane. In the novel Wayman’s fellow students in the SDS decide they need a means of refocusing the world’s attention on the values and agendas of the movement. China had recently launched a satellite that circumnavigated the globe broadcasting Communist Party songs and quotations of Chairman Mao. This inspires the students to commandeer a Minuteman missile from a mothballed silo, remove its nuclear warhead and use it to broadcast songs from the Woodstock festival.
When asked if he’d written the novel to redress the current tendency toward historical revisionism regarding the ’60s, Wayman’s answer was yes and no. He said it was important to him to create a portrait of how democracy actually works in movements dedicated to change. By late 1969, he said, the movement was already beginning to fracture, due in part to frustration that protests weren’t achieving the changes students had hoped for. Internal pressures in the SDS led to dedicated Maoists insisting on strict adherence to the Communist leader’s ideology, causing the movement to splinter. Other SDS members had begun to feel that violence was the only way to change American policy and split off to become The Weathermen. For Wayman the significance of the Woodstock festival was less in its music than its socio-political implications.
“I wanted the novel to show too that it’s a tiny minority that’s making changes; and that minority has a huge impact on society. But if you held those views you were considered an outcast, an outsider. Woodstock was the first time so many people who shared the same views were all in the same place; they began to see the potential for change.”
Wayman explained that the extreme repression of the McCarthy era had left a deep impression – he only learned of the social and unionist activism of the 1930s late in the ’60s. Even Wayman’s parents, who had been activists, had purged their home library of political books. The political status quo seldom wishes for change. So it’s no surprise that mainstream media today tend to disparage the Woodstock era.
“It was a minority, I can’t stress that enough. That’s why I always laugh when people say, ‘Oh, the boomers sold out.’ Most of my friends that had alternative views then have them now.” Addressing the students, he added, “You’re aware because of when you were born that the form of self-government we have now doesn’t work very well at all. This is not the only way of organizing a self-governing society, so what other possible ways are there? That was some of the stuff young people were grappling with back then just as they are now in Egypt and Tunisia.”