U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Brief Stray Thought on the Historiography of the Seventies

In recent months, this blog has devoted numerous posts to the historiography of the 1970s, most recently in Andrew’s consideration of of two excellent books on that period, Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive and Daniel K. Williams’s God’s Own Party.

Like other USIH bloggers, I’ve found the recent explosion of interesting work on the 1970s to be really exciting.  A whole cohort of historians are asking critical questions about the recent past that intersect in interesting ways with U.S. intellectual history in general and my own scholarly interests in particular.  

Rather suddenly, I think, the historiography of the 1970s has become in certain ways richer, more coherent, and more interesting than the older and more established historiography of the 1960s.

There’s obviously no simple explanation for this fact. Some of it, I suspect, has to do with the fact that, from the perspective of the early 21st century, the Seventies now seem to have been a more significant watershed decade than the Sixties.*  But I suspect that there’s another, more strictly historiographical factor, at work here, too.

Much of the foundation of the historiography of the Sixties consisted of books by people who were, in one way or another, active participants in the events about which they wrote.  I’m thinking of books like Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward’s Poor People’s Movements, Todd Gitlin’s The Whole World is Watching, James Miller’s Democracy is in the Streets, or Sara Evans’s Personal Politics.  These were among the books I read when I studied the Sixties in graduate school at the end of the 1980s.  And I learned a ton from them. But the questions they ask and the stories they tell are very much grounded in the concerns of the historical actors themselves.  And these books in a sense created the foundational narratives to which younger historians of the Sixties like Lisa McGirr, Joe Crespino, and Doug Rossinow would find themselves responding to.  To get a historical perspective on that decade, this second generation of historians had to, in a sense, move beyond its immediate struggles.

Now there are some wonderful participant-observer books about aspects of the 1970s, too (among many half-finished books on my shelf is Max Elbaum’s Revolution in the Air, a fascinating history of the New Communist Movement of the ’70s, written by a participant).  But the core historiography of the Seventies, in part because it arrived fairly late to the party, has been created by historians a little more removed from the events about which they are writing than those who wrote the foundational texts of Sixties historiography.

The Seventies fascinates today precisely because of things we could only really see with the hindsight of history.  And the wonderful books about the period that have appeared in ever-increasing numbers over the last decade are distinctly historical in the questions they ask and the answers they offer.
* I’d add that contemporary popular culture seems to suggest that the place of the Sixties and Seventies in American public memory is shifting, too.  For example, compare and contrast the very slowly emerging Sixties of Mad Men with the wild and woolly Seventies of Life on Mars….but this is a conversation for another post.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ben, thanks for this post — another review of literature for me to bookmark.

    I’m especially intrigued by these observations:

    “Much of the foundation of the historiography of the Sixties consisted of books by people who were, in one way or another, active participants in the events about which they wrote….[T]he questions they ask and the stories they tell are very much grounded in the concerns of the historical actors themselves.”

    I’d be interested to hear what you and others think about this kind of historiography.

    What does “insider history” look like when it is done well? Or can it be done well? If something is lost (relative objectivity), is anything gained?

    If someone was an eyewitness/participant, is it possible to gain the critical distance needed to write a methodologically and epistemologically well-grounded history? What do professional historians do with their own memory when writing history?

    Thanks again for the post.

  2. Ben:

    Great post there. I’ve had almost all the same thoughts myself: that the seventies seem much more interesting now, that historians are making it seem more important, and that an important reason for that is the fact that much of sixties history was written by the participants in it. I appreciate you crystallizing thoughts that I’m sure others have had as well.

    One might add another point which is intimately related to one that you made, but is nonetheless not exactly the same: sixties history has largely been written from the same viewpoint, one that essentially conflates the decade with “the movement.” Additionally, this frame presents the New Left and the counterculture as a crucial turning point in American history, and its participants as uniquely interesting, enlightened and significant figures. (In that sense, it perhaps has more in common with the Revolutionary Era than any other U.S. historical period.)

    I think that this way of thinking about the sixties survives to this day. To use one of your examples, Lisa McGirr is thought of as an historian of “conservatism” not of “the sixties.” (There are other reasons for this, of course, but isn’t it hard to imagine it any other way?) In this very post you subtly advanced this thesis by saying that sixties history was written by “the participants,” when referring to veterans of the New Left. (I don’t mean to be critical. Most people, including me, use the same kinds of expressions.) But southern segregationists and supporters of the Vietnam War (by whom I do *not* mean Hubert Humphrey) are also “participants.” It would nonetheless seem kind of weird to refer to them this way.

    So, personally, long before I found the sixties historiographically compromised, I found them simply tedious. Every book seemed to reflect the viewpoint of an aging hippie. So the seventies seem new not only for the obvious reason that they are closer in time, but also because they seem so much less picked over than the sixties, which came to offer only one line of interpretation.

    Because of this dynamic, though, it will not surprise me if some sort of sixties resurgence begins to appear in the historiography. I think that a story of the sixties that puts the New Left as a (very important) part of a much larger story is still ahead of us, and the meaning of the entire decade still might change. Whenever that work or school appears, I suspect it wlll find a very receptive audience.

    I also can’t help but notice that the decade is receding far enough into the past that I actually have to really teach it to students of typical college age now, rather than sort of gesturing at it. The broadest outlines of the sixties–it was characterized by young people getting involved in politics, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War were the primary issues, students your age got killed at Kent State, there was a huge concert at Woodstock–are no more interesting, familiar or relevant to my students than the Teapot Dome scandal. It is teaching that has actually revived my interest in the sixties: if I’ve only got a day or two to talk about the decade, the challenge of identifying its *most* salient parts is becoming a pretty interesting one.

  3. Great post, Ben, and also, great comments, Mike. I agree with both of you that the sixties needs serious historiographic revision. In fact, I’ve been mulling around writing a sixties book after the culture wars book (if only to stay sane while mired in the much of the culture wars).

  4. I must disagree with my colleagues on this one: sixties historiography is not one simply dominated by artifacts from the decade nor is it merely conflated with “the movement.” For one very astute guide to the decade, see one of the great champions of USIH, Dave Steigerwald. I found his book, The Sixties and the End of Modern America, to be very important in the way it wrestled with ideas that established the foundation for much of what you all seem to like about ’70s historiography. Also, a diplomatic historian named Jeremi Suri practically reinvented the diplomatic history of the period with his book Power and Protest. And take a look at what religious historian Mark Massa has been doing on Catholics and the era. And I am partial to this historiography because I attempted to contribute to it with stuff on movies and critics during the 1960s. I think I post on this topic might be necessary…

  5. I was going to contribute this in another post, but since Ray has broached the topic, I’ve been wondering how much Age of Fracture, for instance, was presaged by William L. O’Neill’s Coming Apart: An Informal History of America in the 1960s (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1971).

    I understand this to be a well-known text; I also understand O’Neill to not have been a participant in the decades activities (Is this him: http://history.rutgers.edu/faculty-directory/60-faculty-emeriti/179-oneill-william?). If I’m right on those counts, I offer the text to show, with Ray, that not all books ~from and about~ the Sixties era are strictly tainted with participant perspectives. – TL

  6. Yikes. I just read the 2004 Introduction by O’Neill to the 2005 edition of Coming Apart. I can’t decide, as of this post, if O’Neill has become a bitter right-of-center Democrat or a Neoconservative. It’s clear from that Introduction, particularly p. xv, that his perspective has changed from 1971. I suppose that doesn’t invalidate his first draft of the decade, but it changes my perspective somewhat on the scholarship O’Neill has produced since (much of it on the post-1945 U.S.). – TL

  7. @ Ray:

    Just to clarify my point in this post: I don’t think that the historiography of the Sixties is still dominated by participant-observers or discussions of “the movement.” I do think this was its initial foundation, however. And I think the (now more diverse and sophisticated) historiography still bears the mark of that foundation.

  8. Fair enough, Ben. I re-read your last two paragraphs and you make that point clearly.
    But I would still caution us on how we consider ranking decades against each other, as when you suggest that “the Seventies now seem to have been a more significant watershed decade than the Sixties.”

    Your point regarding the participant-observers is a perennial problem, of course, when grappling with 60s historiography. But what in particular do you find significant about the generation writing on the ’70s that gives their historical distance a critical edge? Is that contemporary history is just simply hard to do well?

    I agree that younger historians writing on the 60s had to navigate around the influential studies by people who had “been there.” I remember listening to Tom Hayden contend that Robert Kennedy would have been as significant an historical figure as Lincoln. I asked why he even needed to make that comparison, and Hayden responded that if I had looked into RFK’s eyes as he did I wouldn’t need to ask such a question.

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