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Theodore Roszak, defined 1960s counterculture; 77

Dr. Roszak, who taught in California, saw the seeds of a new future in campus rebellions and the civil rights movement. Dr. Roszak, who taught in California, saw the seeds of a new future in campus rebellions and the civil rights movement. (New York Times)
By Douglas Martin
New York Times / July 14, 2011

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NEW YORK - Theodore Roszak, who three weeks after the Woodstock Festival in 1969 not only published a pivotal book about a young generation’s drug-fueled revolt against authority but also gave it a name - “counterculture’’ - died July 5 at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 77.

His wife, Betty, said he had been treated for liver cancer and other illnesses.

Dr. Roszak’s book “The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society’’ had gone to press months before the music festival was held in August that year, displaying the exuberance and excesses of a generation rebelling against war and seeking new ways to be and think. But in serendipitously timely fashion, the book provided what many regarded as a profound analysis of the youth movement, finding its roots in a sterile Western culture that had prompted young people to seek spiritual meaning in LSD, exotic religions, and even comic books.

“This is a sophisticated Roman candle of a book,’’ the Christian Science Monitor said.

The book contended that science-dominated modern society was ugly, repressive, and soulless; that youthful dissent was coherent enough to be termed a culture; and that this antirationalist “counterculture’’ - a term Dr. Roszak popularized and may have invented - might offer the foundation of a new visionary civilization.

He saw the seeds of a new future in campus rebellions, the civil rights movement, and even a popular button that said, “I am a human being; do not mutilate, spindle, or tear.’’ As he phrased the generation’s quest, “We are outward bound from the old corruptions of the world.’’ Its destination, he said, was “the Holy City.’’

These were themes Dr. Roszak expanded on in a succession of books, most influentially in “Where the Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Postindustrial Society,’’ published in 1972. It, like the counterculture book, was a finalist for the National Book Award.

In the New York Times, Anatole Broyard devoted two book review columns to “Wasteland.’’ He called it “nothing less than a State of the Union Message on the condition of the human soul.’’

As Dr. Roszak continued to extol what he saw as new human possibilities, some reviewers questioned his distaste for reason and others his optimism. In reviewing “Unfinished Animal: The Aquarian Frontier and the Evolution of Consciousness’’ in 1975, Pete Hamill said that the luster of the counterculture had by then been extinguished by the shooting of students at Kent State University, Charles Manson’s murderous band, and other traumatic events. The counterculture, Hamill said, had become “just another media fraud.’’

But Dr. Roszak continued to be the generation’s cheerleader, writing a book when the first of the baby boomers reached 50 and several more as they approached old age. He wrote that the idealistic values of the 1960s would inspire millions of baby boomers in their last years.

“The future belongs to age, not youth,’’ Dr. Roszak said in an interview on NBC’s “Today’’ show in 1998.

Dr. Roszak was born in Chicago. His father was a carpenter.

He earned a degree in history from the University of California, Los Angeles, and a doctorate from Princeton. He taught for 35 years at what is now California State University, East Bay, retiring in 1998.

He leaves his wife, the former Betty Greenwald; a daughter, Kathryn Roszak; and a granddaughter.

Dr. Roszak wrote and edited about 20 books, many of which, he said, furthered his reputation as “a leading spokesman for antiscience and as a neo-Luddite crusader.’’

But he preferred to write fiction, which he used to make broad points. In one of his half dozen novels, partly as a comment on sexism, he reimagined Mary Shelley’s classic, Frankenstein, making the narrator not Victor Frankenstein but his half-sister and fiancee. Another tells the tale of a San Francisco-based gay Jewish writer who becomes trapped in a fundamentalist Bible college in Minnesota during a snowstorm.