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Reviewed by:
  • Droppers: America’s First Hippie Commune, Drop City by Mark Matthews
  • Michael Krueger
Droppers: America’s First Hippie Commune, Drop City. By Mark Matthews. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. 2010.

This book does not begin with the quote, “All that is solid, melts into air,” (Karl Marx—C.M. Communist Manifesto) but perhaps it should. Art, activism and invention are at the core of this story, and the result is a beguiling tale of ingenuity, celebration of life and ultimately a heartbreaking collapse of utopia.

The text for this book is largely derived from interviews with the Drop City founding member, Eugene Victor Debs Bernofsky, but also includes correspondence with other founding members Clark Richert and Richard Kallweit. It is clear through the reading that the author has gone to great lengths to secure the poignant and engrossing chronicles. The first few chapters of the book give an illustrative vision of the years leading up to the great journey that would be, Drop City, beginning with Bernofsky’s “red diaper” years in New York City. The narrative interview format is peppered with insightful and solid historic bits and illuminating tangential fragments from the period.

Gene Bernofsky’s friend and fellow University of Kansas student Clark Richert coaxed him into making art. The two of them formed an alliance and called their creations Droppings, and themselves Droppers. The term Droppers precisely relates to several art happenings in which they dropped or hung by ropes objects and works of art from their loft window in downtown Lawrence, Kansas. Gene said of their artmaking, “We decided that, if we were going to make things, we wouldn’t copy anything.” This tenet lead to explicit innovation and is reiterated throughout the apologue as they continually reinvent the world they live in.

Matthews does a remarkable job of infusing the book with historic context from the period and dotting the chapters with enough political sampling to transport the reader to a time when radical change seemed to be the only real possibility. Much of Bernofsky’s comments are fact checked by his FBI file, providing an interested subtext to the whole book. Matthews also wittily interjects snippets of period news blurbs into the text, somewhat like the beat cut-ups of Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs, it makes for an interesting read. The casual and creative format of the book flows wonderfully and in some ways reveals deeper views of an un-intentional community than a more traditional historic take. [End Page 183]

We follow a trance-like story of profoundly radical and freethinkers as they reel through Marxist leanings, Mennonite resistance, art making and straight up Bucky Fuller cosmic energy to get them to a laudable point of departure, to a point of no return and a place of no blueprint. What is spilled out in this book is perhaps the only true narrative of Drop City, so far anyway – the facts and myth continue to be overturned. Mark Matthews does justice to the subject and with respect pays tribute to a radiate flare in American history that made triumphant contributions to art, communal living, experimental architecture, alternative energy models and what became known as the hippie movement.

Michael Krueger
University of Kansas