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.