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Soon to be a breaking Hoot story

Reevaluating the autobiography of Brandeis's most infamous alumus

Published: September 19, 2008
Section: Arts, Etc.

If you have some time on your hands (which you probably don’t if you attend Brandeis University), and if you’ve made your way through all the books on your reading list (which you definitely haven’t), you might want to consider picking up Abbie Hoffman’s 1980 autobiography, Soon to Be A Major Motion Picture.

Abbie Hoffman was, of course, one of the great radicals, an agitator and activist who helped to define the 1960’s counterculture. He was also a Brandeis grad. Hoffman’s persona is deeply intertwined with the popular image of the anti-Vietnam movement, as can be seen in the “cram-everything-about-Baby-Boomers-into-one-confused-mess-of-a-movie” Forrest Gump, in which a foul-mouthed Hoffman-like character leads a Washington protest against the war.

Hoffman is an inspiration for activists, partially because of his successful agitation and tragic status as a martyr of the movement, but also because he pioneered an exceptional idea: revolution through humor. Hoffman’s activism was always mixed with copious amounts of clownishness and street theater, most famously in his attempt to levitate the Pentagon, and his creation of pandemonium by pouring dollar bills onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

Hoffman’s personal philosophy is succinctly explained in pieces of the transcript from his testimony as a defendant in the infamous Chicago 8 trial:

LEONARD WEINGLASS, Hoffman’s attorney: Can you tell the Court and jury what is your present occupation?

ABBIE HOFFMAN: I am a cultural revolutionary. Well, I am really a defendant. Full-time.

WEINGLASS: What do you mean by the phrase “cultural revolutionary?”

HOFFMAN: Well, I suppose it is a person who tries to shape and participate in the values, and the mores, the customs and the style of living of new people who eventually become inhabitants of a new nation and a new society through art and poetry, theater, and music.

As is probably clear, Abbie Hoffman never did bring about his new nation, and the counter-culture destroyed itself. And eventually Hoffman took 150 barbiturate pills and destroyed himself too.

But he stands as one of the most fascinating figures of a generation, and his autobiography is absolutely worth a look. It’s particularly interesting for anyone on this campus, because of a particular chapter, “From Bum to College Boy,” about his time at our very own university.

Hoffman is talking about the Brandeis of the early 60’s, but very little seems to have changed. He talks about getting a juvenile prank played on him in the Castle. He talks about Eleanor Roosevelt and Abraham Maslow, and mentions both Gosman and the Louis Brandeis statue. Most surprisingly, though, Brandeis is presented as somewhat of a rebellious institution. Firstly, he discusses how he settled upon going here:

“The academy was upset when I told them I liked the idea of going to Brandeis University. It was only seven years old, and the academy wanted ivy-covered walls for its protégés. They presented such rational arguments against Brandeis that I fell in love with the place.”

He also mentions the way Brandeis sowed the seeds for his rebelliousness. Of his father, he says this: “Up until the day he died, he always blamed Brandeis for my corruption. Be it divorce, dope, hippies, or schvartzes, he always ended up cursing Brandeis. ‘If it hadn’t been for Brandeis…’ he used to mumble in a pained litany.”

The book is interesting for Brandeis students, because Hoffman seems to leave here and then immediately enter the pages of history. He goes straight from walking up the hill to his classes to hanging out with Norman Mailer at the Pentagon.

Reading the book is actually a bit depressing, not only because of the tragic end to the Hoffman story, but also because the Brandeis of today seems miserably mellow by comparison. Hoffman used our school as a jumping-off point for radical social activism, for fighting on the front lines of the culture war.

Today’s Brandeis seems unlikely to develop another Hoffman, a sad fact considering his status as one of our most notable (and notorious) graduates.

Perhaps it is time that Hoffman’s books were given another look, and Brandeis students began to revive his—and the school’s—legacy.

Soon to Be A Major Motion Picture can be found in the Brandeis Library.