Remembering the world's year of living dangerously

By MICHAEL ECK, Special to the Times Union
First published: Sunday, February 8, 2004

"The whole world is watching!, the whole world is watching!"

It was more than just another slogan. It was the truth.

In 1968, the whole world was watching.

Author Mark Kurlansky was 20 years old then. He remembers watching the demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention on television; he remembers watching the police brutality as it unfolded in front of the Chicago Hilton; he remembers hearing the terrified but defiant chant as it rose from the crowd; and he remembers thinking that middle America would finally understand what it was like to march for peace in a world that was fraying at the edges.

"While the Chicago police were clubbing people in the street, people all over the country were sitting in their living rooms watching this happen," Kurlansky says. "What an extraordinary event that was. I remember thinking that all these people who never went to demonstrations, like my parents, were finally going to see what it was like."

Niche histories

Kurlansky, who visits the New York State Writers Institute on Thursday, is the author of popular niche histories such as "Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World," "Salt: A World History" and "The Basque History of the World."

His latest is "1968: The Year That Rocked The World" (Ballantine; 441 pages; $26.95). It is, as Dan Rather puts it in a jacket blurb, a "highly opinionated and highly readable history."

Kurlansky cops to the former in his introductory chapter: "I was of the generation that hated the Vietnam War," he writes. " ... I am stating my prejudices at the outset because even now, more than three decades later, an attempt at objectivity on the subject of 1968 would be dishonest."

Rarely, though, is subjectivity so entertaining. Kurlansky skewers many of the year's supporting players with one-liners that target Henry Kissinger's "extraordinary ability to speak with authority while being completely wrong," poet Rod McKuen's recitations in "a raspy voice suggestive of either emotion or bronchitis," and Miss America Pageant host Bert Parks status as "a make-believe celebrity."

"When you shed this pretense of being neutral it gives you a tremendous freedom to get across how you see things and how you feel about them," Kurlansky says. "I think it's a perfectly honest and fair way to approach something."

Strong story

"1968" is also well researched, thorough and thoughtfully arranged. Kurlansky's chronological outline of the year's action makes sense, and it allows him room to riff on the subjects that interest him most.

"I am a very strong believer in storytelling. I think that that's the only successful way to put together a book," he says. "When I read newspaper stories and magazine articles about the events of 1968, I realized that the events themselves unfolded like a good story."

And what events: the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy; Czechoslovakia's "Prague Spring" and the subsequent Soviet invasion; the Tet Offensive and the My Lai massacre in Vietnam; the Mexico City Olympics; the war in Biafra; the rise of the Black Panthers; the empowerment of women's lib; Lyndon Johnson's withdrawal; and Richard Nixon's election.

"If a playwright had been making up the events and orchestrating them, he couldn't have done it better," Kurlansky says. "The dramatic build to them, the climax and this kind of denouement of the shot to the moon. It was just great storytelling."

Spending a few years

Kurlansky selects his unusual topics based on one criterion: Each must interest him enough to make him willing to spend a few years of his life on it.

Kurlansky's interest in 1968 doesn't stop at this nation's borders: As his subtitle suggests, it was a year of global upheaval.

"There were these explosive social movements and student movements in every country in the world, and the interesting thing is that the countries were all quite different from one another," he says.

"Think about communist Poland and Czechoslovakia and DeGaulle's France and Franco's Spain, and Italy, Britain, Germany, Japan and the United States. All had very different issues and problems, and yet all had very similar groups that shared actions and beliefs. The groups didn't know each other or talk to each other, so it was a spontaneous worldwide movement, a kind of thing that's never happened before and will never happen again."

Television's role

One of the most compelling aspects of Kurlansky's tale is the role that television played in the year's maelstrom.

"Television was coming of age but was still new enough not to have yet become controlled, distilled and packaged the way it is today," Kurlansky writes in his book. "In 1968 the phenomenon of a same-day broadcast from another part of the world was in itself a gripping new technological wonder."

Nightly news reports helped shape global action and reaction the way homegrown Web sites might today.

"The truth is that we were at the traumatic beginning of the media-driven technological society that we're in today," Kurlansky says.

"We now live in an age where we're very used to the idea of technology changing our lives. It's sort of become banal. We're using all this stuff we didn't use five years ago and we know that we're going to have to throw it out next year and get new stuff. That's just the world we live in.

"In 1968, it was very new to have technology create these kind of changes in your life. We were certainly aware of the shock and the impact of live television and immediate rebroadcast and for the first time getting news as it happened on television. On the other hand, we didn't really grasp how it was changing the world and what a new world we were going into."

Kurlansky spent his fair share of time in front of the tube that year.

"I remember watching the Vietnam War on television and becoming very saddened and angered every night," he says. "I couldn't believe it was just continuing to go on. I had also met Bobby Kennedy, and I was devastated by his murder in June. I was watching the California primary on TV and had fallen asleep, and the noise around the reports of the assassination woke me up."

Kurlansky's next book, "The Yiddish Boogaloo," is done and waiting to be edited, printed and packaged. It's a novel, a new genre for him and one that will put his storytelling skills to the test.

"I actually worked on it for about 10 years," says the author, who lives in New York City. "It takes place in the summer of 1988 in the Lower East Side of New York."

For his next oddball history, Kurlansky will get back to the gastronomic. He's currently researching the tale of oysters in the waters off Manhattan.

"New York City," he says, "used to be one of the great oyster-producing centers of the world before pollution destroyed the beds."

All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2003, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.

Mark Kurlansky