The quintessential novel of the 1960s that most people have never heard of, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, is a seminal work of counterculture fiction, and required reading for anyone seriously interested in the Summer of Love.
The novel, published in 1966, takes place in the late 1950s—a time of major transition in American and youth culture. Set at a lightly fictionalized Cornell University, the book touches on some of the student protests over strict curfew rules that actually took place. Demonstrations and impending fights for civil freedoms and liberties of the Swinging Sixties loom large in the events of Been Down So Long.
The campus novel follows the modern-Odysseus Gnossos Pappadopoulis as he returns to Mentor University after a long journey across America, during which he gains ‘Exemption’—ostensibly, exemption from all the sins and problems that affect humanity. While away, he nearly dies fighting a wolf in the forest, witnesses an atomic bomb explode, and watches a ritualistic murder in the desert. It’s debatable whether Pappadopoulis really is enlightened in any way, but he sure thinks he is, and as the novel progresses so too do the students of Mentor, who eventually elect Pappadopoulis as the reluctant leader of their protest.
It’s hard to say why a group of 1950s-college students would elect Gnossos as their leader, but it’s indicative of the seismic social shift that occurred at the time. That’s part of the mastery of Been Down So Long—it captures the transitionary period of the beatnik era into the hippie era with fine detail, and expresses with great clarity the Sixties counterculture that so many people love. The book is like one long song by any San Francisco band—it immerses you in a hearty dose of freedom, rebellion, and flower power, but with much greater detail.
Author Richard Fariña didn’t just write about it—he lived it. Fariña was a Cuban-Irish who fought for the Irish Republican Army, smuggled guns for Castro, studied English at Cornell before being expelled for his role in the 1958 protests, married Mimi Baez—sister to Joan Baez, accomplished folksinger and Bob Dylan muse—and made a name for himself as a folk singer, often accompanying his wife on dulcimer, before penning his cult classic. Tragically, he died at 29 from a motorcycle accident, two days after Been Down So Long was published.
Tom Pynchon, a friend of Fariña’s, famously described Been Down So Long as “coming on like the Hallelujah Chorus done by 200 kazoo players in perfect pitch.” You have to read the book to get what that means. It’s transcendent, and a beautiful piece of art, but it’s zany, and off-putting, and not quite right. It’s a wacky bildungsroman that reads like a lot of drugs were involved, as Pappadopoulis comes of age in a plane of existence slightly round-the-bend from ours. But Fariña crystallizes a mythologized time period better than anyone else, and that’s what makes Been Down So Long so worth reading.