Longtime North Bennington resident, museum curator and author Tom Fels has done it again. I recently read an advance copy of his new book, to be released Nov. 30: "Buying The Farm: Peace and War on a Sixties Commune" (2012, University of Massachusetts Press, $24.95 softcover, 220 pages), and it didn’t disappoint.
Fels followed up on the critical success of his "Farm Friends" (2008), in which he told the story of the many of personalities of Montague Farm, a commune in western Massachusetts where he spent four years, from 1969 to 1973. His latest offering is a comprehensive history of that same cooperative from its inception to the present day.
Fels records the past with curatorial sensibility; he is ever attuned to the notion of time and what it means to the subject, as well as to his audience. He understands that temporally framing Montague Farm bears much the same weight as the light falling on an oil painting once mounted on a wall for public exhibition.
As such, he spun the threads of his history around a seminal event: the 25th reunion of the commune’s members, in 1993.
To his credit, Fels was astute not to compress these events, but his prose hardly put on the brakes. This is because Fels the writer has a keen ear for tone and cadence as he goes from one subject to another, imitating the effects of a fine iambic pentameter.
This nearly lyrical prose works in "Buying The Farm" for two reasons. First, Fels is well schooled in writers whose stories move along easily, such as Ovid, Lytton Strachey and Henry James.
More importantly, however, Fels returns to his successful technique from "Farm Friends" by giving much weight to his dramatis personae. Having followed this group of former 1960s radicals for years, and founded a research archive for them, they are in his own words, his "in-house stable of actors." From them he takes the past and tells us about our present and future.
One character seminal to both books -- though his role on the surface might suggest otherwise -- is Raymond Mungo, a journalist, activist, and co-founder of the Liberation News Service in 1967. He was also one of earliest social dissenters involved with Montague Farm.
Mungo created and chronicled the farm’s initial history and according to Fels, remains a role model for a flexible, enlightened public figure to this day. Numerous other personalities play prominent roles in Fels’ story, one that brings the 1960s to life in vivid flourishes.
Indeed, those times were idealistic, and influenced American society to this day. Fels, however, is quick to note its dichotomous nature throughout his narrative, most often in his reflections and evaluations of Montague Farm.
To this end Fels included a foreword to help readers grasp this era, "The Sixties in Perspective: A Personal View," by renowned Harvard scholar Daniel Aaron. In an extensive 2009 interview with Fels, Aaron spoke on the contradiction of youth pressing for idealistic societal change:
"That’s been characteristic of all the young generations, even now. They’re enthusiastic, they’re impulsive; their good feelings, their natural sympathies, their generosities come out, but then they discover that’s not enough. I think you reach a point where you have other interests, family and children and everything else, and you no longer are alert to these things. You don’t want to protest any longer because in a sense that upsets your own environment and your expectations, so you accept what you rebelled against earlier. It’s a stance; there are tradeoffs."
Readers of "Buying The Farm" will walk away with the impression that Fels not only understands these tradeoffs, but has lived them, also. However, he is far from a sellout. In fact, Fels’ ability to empathically yet impartially observe both his comrades and the farm -- holding them accountable as needed -- raises his credibility more than any picket line or placard ever could.
Such humility with regard to the social contract makes "Buying The Farm" quintessentially American, and a cerebral yet unpretentious must-read. Furthermore, it brings to light what Fels now believes should be the way forward for all citizens seeking social change: collaboration, cooperation, vision and progress.
Tom Fels will hold a public reading of "Buying The Farm" at Northshire Bookstore at 7 p.m. on Dec. 14.
Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist. You may e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org