Recounting Culture

Ball State history professor Michael William Doyle styles himself a patriot. For him, he said, that means making the country a better place, rather than complacently accepting it for what it is.

"People used to say 'love it or leave,' but I could never relate to that," he said. "If you loved this country then you'd want to do something about it if it didn't rise to your expectations. And that's part of the American dream. You just keep working toward promoting a more perfect union."

Doyle has been an activist for a more perfect union since he was 15. Now at 48, he has put together an interpretive history of a generation that tried to transform America in a new book titled "Imagine Nation: The American Counterculture of the 1960s and '70s."

Released in December, "Imagine Nation" is a collection of essays by 14 authors that covers an assortment of topics associated with the counterculture of the late '60s and early '70s, including psychedelic drug use, communal living, feminism and avant-garde film.

Doyle, who edited the book with Peter Braunstein, described the work as partially autobiographical. Born in Illinois in 1953, Doyle grew up in Minnesota and was introduced to the counterculture movements in 1968 when he went to Chicago with a friend to protest the Democratic National Convention and the Vietnam War. He enjoyed watching Allen Ginsberg and others discuss their views and reading the underground press for the first time. But, witnessing the police brutality and the ensuing riots that marked his Chicago trip, he felt he became radicalized.

"There and then I came of age," he said. "I just became enamored of this movement and knew what I wanted to do."

Though Doyle gave some thought to going to college, he was disillusioned by the Kent State massacre in 1970.

"What would be the point of going to college and getting tear-gassed in protest?," he said. "I didn't need to go pay tuition some place and be involved in trying to turn it around. So after I graduated I pretty much went into a countercultural lifestyle on a full-time basis."

Doyle hitchhiked and hopped on trains nationwide for several years before landing at a Wisconsin communal farm in 1975, where he made a living growing and selling organic produce. He lived there for 10 years, during which time he became interested in local history while trying to stop the establishment of a nuclear power plant.

"At the time the U.S. Energy Department changed the ruling on environmental impact statements that said projects like (the nuclear power plant) had to comment on the impact of historical and cultural resources," he said.

Doyle began doing interviews with local farmers as a result.

"Despite the fact I had really long hair and most of the people in the area were conservative Republicans, the fact that I was interested in their history allowed them to look beyond my appearance and find that we had a lot in common," he said.

He eventually made it to the University of Wisconsin, where he graduated with a history degree in 1989.

Doyle said the idea for the book had been percolating in his mind for many years. In 1994 he met Braunstien, then a fashion writer in New York who had wanted to put together a similar volume.

"When I was looking for a co-editor I immediately thought Michael would make a great choice," Braunstein said in a telephone interview. "He knows academia and how to mold a book for the academic market."

"Imagine Nation" is one of the first books to compile a collection of interpretive historical essays about the counterculture, which Doyle described as a social formation similar to a subculture but having a slightly different relationship to the dominant culture.

"Whereas the subculture is interested in maintaining a kind of distinct identity that doesn't necessarily overshadow its identity with the larger group, the counterculture is wooed into a subject position outside of the dominant culture with aspirations of taking power and transforming the larger culture."

Even though he now maintains a steady teaching job, lives away from a commune and shortened his gray, waist-length hair into a gray shoulder-length Thomas Jefferson-like coif, Doyle said he continues to counter the culture.

"I haven't changed my values at all," he said. "I think I've come to the conclusion that I really love history, and I want to change the world, one student's mind at a time. I like being in an environment where students challenge me to clarify my values and opinions, because I don't think these things are necessarily permanent, but in constant flux in response to how the world is changing."