Jonathan Livingston Seagull was not a typical bestseller. Not only was it initially refused by more than 20 publishing companies(1), but also once it was finally picked up by Macmillan it made it to the top
of the charts with almost no advertising budget. Richard Bach's allegory about a Seagull who did not want to accept the limits imposed on him by nature and society became the number one best-selling novel of 1972 mainly by word of mouth. Initially nickna
med "Friede's Folly" by publishing bigwigs(2) ? after Eleanor Friede, the editor who talked her superiors into publishing it ? Jonathan Livingston Seagull became the biggest surprise of the publishing industry. No one expected a book riddled with p
ictures and less than 100 pages long to rise to the most coveted spot on best-selling nonfiction and fiction lists. The short story contains less than 10,000 words, yet it broke all hardcover sales records since Gone with the Wind by selling more t
han 1,000,000 copies in 1972 alone(3). By 1972 the media picked up on the allure of this deceptively simple story, and Macmillan finally put money behind it. Jonathan Livingston Seagull became a cultural phenomenon of the 70's, comparable to bell-
bottoms and leisure suits. Collector's editions, merchandise, and a film followed the novella's burst onto the charts. It went on to sell more than 9 million copies in the first five years, and by 1992 the number totaled more than 30 million(4). The timin
g could not have been more perfect for the rise of this type of a tale. Society was primed and ready for Jonathan's particular style of rebellion and perfection thanks to the events preceding Jonathan's publication.
In the early 70's the time was right for a bird who defied the rules. The 1960's were a time of social and cultural change ? to say the least. The decade preceding Jonathan's popularity saw such amazing changes as The Civil Rights Movement, Women's Libera
tion, sexual revolutions, and rock and roll. Everything that came out of this era contributed to the enthusiastic reception Jonathan received from the public. Bach's hero's refusal to conform to his society was a perfect allegorical counterpart to the ref
usal of the youth of the day to follow in their parents' footsteps. The monotonous, self-denying lifestyle of Jonathan's flock was so much like the lifestyle that abounded in the 1950's that it made perfect sense that readers in the post-60's era would c
onnect with it. In the 60's women refused to be confined to the home and the kitchen as their parents' generation's stereotypes compelled, and they endured similar ridicule to that which Jonathan endured. During the Civil Rights Movement, African American
s refusing to accept the limits imposed on them by the outdated traditions of the segregated south met with immense interference in their struggle to change the world around them. Jonathan's statements, "The only true law is that which leads to freedom,"(
5) and "We can lift ourselves out of ignorance, we can find ourselves as creatures of excellence and intelligence and skill. We can be free!"(6) both could be easily construed as maxims for these movements. The Women's Liberation movement and the Civil R
ights Movement were reactions to rules that hindered blacks and women from obtaining freedom. Jonathan's emphasis on breaking away from his boundaries and working toward freedom and excellence appealed to the people in 1970's society who were sympatheti
c to these movements.
The hippie generation is another aspect of 1960's cultural change to which Jonathan's rebellion appealed. The hippies broke away from the normal way of life with drugs, free love, and rock and roll. They burned their draft cards in protest of the war in
Vietnam while they grew their hair much longer than the social code allowed. Jonathan's mother's comment early in the book probably sounded very familiar to young readers of the day, "'Why, Jon, why?' his mother asked. 'Why is it so hard to be
like the rest of the flock, Jon?'"(7). Woodstock ? the ultimate example of the youth of the 1960's breaking away from their parents' ideals ? occurred just one year before Jonathan's version of rebellion. The cultural atmosphere in 1970 was perfectly ac
climated to a story of a bird who refused to follow the old-fashioned rules that oppressed him.
Jonathan Livingston Seagull's thematic content was not the only aspect of the book that appealed to early 70's society ? its author was also someone who broke away from set rules and stereotypes. A large-scale Time cover story was importan
t to the success of the book because it outlined Bach's life, philosophies, hardships, poverty, and divorce. He was a fascinating character indeed ? one worthy of his own best selling novel. The article claimed Bach loved airplanes so much that at one tim
e he allowed his family's only automobile to be repossessed while he still owned an airplane, he personally delivered his wife's baby in their own house, and he once lost a job because he refused to compromise his individuality by trimming his mustache(8
). In an even more bizarre twist of his personality, Bach claimed that he did not even write his best selling novel. He claimed to have visions that he simply copied down on paper. "I don't write like that," he told Time. According to the article,
he also "point[ed] out that he disagree[d] entirely with Jonathan's decision to abandon the pursuit of private perfection in favor of returning to the dumb old Flock and encouraging its members to higher wisdom. 'Self-sacrifice,' sa[id] Bach, 'is a w
ord I cannot stand'"(9). In a time when younger generations embraced rebellion of all sorts, Bach's unique lifestyle fascinated them. His public persona no doubt appealed to many readers, and his personality helped sell his book. In time, Bach was bille
d on many talk shows. Hosts of shows in cities like Pittsburgh and Chicago realized immediately that his bushy mustache and thick head of blond hair made him an instant curiosity piece ? which of course led to more media appearances(10). Publisher's W
eekly mentioned one instance where a Pittsburgh book store "sold 1000 copies in the first 24 hours after the author's appearance on the 'Contact' show"(11).The public was intrigued by his renegade persona, and since any publicity is good publicity,
his book sales soared following his public appearances. Needless to say, Bach's refusal to conform to the usual roles of best selling author and popular media figure made him a fashionable personage for the rebellious youth of 1972 to admire. These inte
resting facts about him -- once surfaced -- secured him and his book a prominent place in 1970's pop culture.
Jonathan's tale did more than symbolize rebellion and freedom to the hippie generation. It also symbolized a better world in which readers could escape the misery surrounding them. Jonathan's message to his students after becoming enlightened is one that
emphasizes this freedom to escape the troubles of society. He says, "Your whole body, from wingtip to wingtip is nothing more than your thought itself, in a form you can see. Break the chains of your thought, and you break the chains of your body too"(12)
. In the early 70's, suburban living rooms were bombarded with images of death and destruction that had never before been so publicized. The media's exploitation of its ability to bring the news of Vietnam home to the American people created a feeling of
despair. The carnage and savagery that filled television screens was inescapable. Jonathan Livingston Seagull was the perfect piece of escapist literature ? a book in which the hero teaches others how to break the natural boundaries of time and pl
ace to find a better world in which to live. In this simple, bedtime-story-like book, Jonathan's ability to reach perfection through his sheer will is optimistic to say the least. But this optimism was exactly what American society needed to escape the sh
adows cast by the Vietnam War. Jonathan's philosophy taught readers that they could overcome their negative circumstances by thinking positively ? a tactic that could not make the war disappear, but at least it could make readers feel better about themsel
ves and the world around them.
For some readers who opted to dig deeper into the book, there was more to it than cheery optimism. Many readers recognized Jonathan Livingston Seagull's moral undercurrent, which contained strains of a number of religious philosophies. As part of t
he rebellious hippie movement of the late 60's and early 70's, young people explored new ways of looking at the world. Traditional American middle class religions like Christianity and Judaism were seen as tenets of the older parent generation, and religi
ous exploration was yet another type of rebellion. Members of the Black power movement began following Islam, while hippies followed their icons ? The Beatles ? in an exploration of Hinduism.
According to an article in The Hindustan Times, "Led by the Beatles [in 1968] seeking the blessing of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, all these young people moved towards India, for them some kind of magic land which would transform their spiritual lives an
d relieve their pain"(13). Young people searching for answers found solace in the religious philosophies of the east, and many of these philosophies could be found in Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Jonathan's philosophy of his body being nothing but
thought is congruent with the Hindu belief of the body as simply a carrier of the soul. The goal of Hindu followers is to be enlightened, much like Jonathan, and reach the point of perfection where they no longer have to rely on their Earthly carriers any
more. Furthermore, Hindu religions believed in reincarnation as a means to continue to climb toward perfection even after death. When the Great Gull tells Jonathan, "We choose our next world through what we learn in this one"(14), he is stating a major be
lief of Hinduism.
In another connection to Hindu thought, Jonathan says, "Heaven is not a place, and it is not a time. Heaven is being perfect"(15). Interestingly, this statement also coincides with Bach's own religious belief at the time of writing the book ? the philosop
hy of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of The Church of Christ, Scientist. A major philosophy of this religion is, "Heaven and hell are not regarded as specific destinations one reaches after death, but as states of thought, experienced in varying degrees her
e and now, as well as after death"(16). These are not the only religions represented in Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Jonathan's role as a teacher come down from a higher place and his being thought of as "the son of the Great Gull Himself"(17) have
led some critics to consider the book a watered down version of traditional Christianity. Since the book does not focus on one religion exclusively, its readers are able to interpret it however they want. When Jonathan asks, "Who is more responsible than
a gull who finds and follows a meaning, a higher purpose for life?"(18), he is not passing judgement on those who believe one way or another. The importance of the book's spiritual message lies in the fact that it allows the reader to decide what that hi
gher purpose is ? whether it be enlightenment of the self or the teaching others. By keeping its religious message open to interpretation, Jonathan Livingston Seagull was popular among people of many different persuasions.
Perhaps the most important element of the book that helped it rise to stardom is this ability to appeal to all types of people. Its symbolism is so rich that every reader can project his or her own beliefs onto it. Ray Bradbury said, "Jonathan is a
great Rorschach test. You read your own mystical principles into it"(19). From hippies and rebels to activists and religious gurus to housewives and young adults, Jonathan's message touched the hearts of many readers. The morals of Bach's deceptively sim
ple allegory were perfectly acclimated to the changes abounding at the time of its publication, and the 1970's were the perfect home for a book about rebelling against societal and familial rules and striving for personal perfection.
3. Foote, 60.
4. Jones, Podolsky, McCarten, 87.
5. Bach, 83.
6. Bach, 27.
7. Bach, 14.
10. Walters, 10.
12. Bach, 76-77.
14. Bach, 54.
15. Bach, 55.
17. Bach, 84.
18. Bach, 35.
19. Foote, 61.
- Bach, Richard. Jonathan Livingston Seagull Macmillan 1970.
- Foote, Timothy. "It's a Bird! It's a Dream! It's Supergull!" Time, November 13, 1972 p. 60-66.
- Jones, Rhoda Donkin; Podolsky, J. D.; McCarten, Hugh. "The Seagull Has Landed." People Weekly, April 27, 1992, p 87+.
- Rowan, Roy. "The best managers play hunches." U.S. News & World Report, May 12, 1986, p. 52.
- Walters, Raymond Jr. "Seven Ways Not to Make a Best Seller." The New York Times Book Review, July 23, 1972 p. 4, 10.
- Publisher's Weekly Best Sellers list, August 14, 1972, p. 82.
- http://www.tfccs.com "The official home page of The Church of Christ, Scientist." Answer to question "Do you believe in Hell?"
- http://www.hindustantimes.com. The Hindustan Times, Online., "In those heady days." November 15, 1998.