“chronicles the movements for social change of the Sixties that began with the civil rights movement and culminated with the angry protests against the US war in Vietnam. Told through the eyes of SDS members, the film is about far more than SDS. It’s about the values, motivations, and actions of a generation that lost its innocence but gained a sense of power and purpose. It’s about a decade that changed America.”
That about sums up the problem with sixties historiography recently identified in Ben’s post and the comments about his post. Indeed, the fact that I can toss off the acronym “SDS” knowing that we understand which group I am referencing, is part of problem. And Rick Perlstein’s essay in Lingua Franca (thanks JJ) when he was still editor of that now defunct journal, nicely captures the battle younger historians had fought to wrestle the 1960s away from the “observer-participant” generation.
I suggested that the state of sixties historiography might not be so bad and wanted to provide few points for further discussion:
First, the generation that attempted to challenge prevailing wisdom about the significance of the 1960s ran up against both popular as well as professional resistance. The sixties generation of scholars who built up a one-dimensional account of their decade might have been a formidable force, but their influence pales in comparison to the machine that made money off of mythologizing a decade to a generation eager to lap it up.
Second, Perlstein quotes Richard Ellis speaking about his experience of hitting a professional wall when he tried to argue that SDS “devolved into dogmatic factionalism.” While not discounting that experience, how might we conclude that there were gatekeepers in the profession that stymied scholarship about the 1960s? From the cross-section of scholars Perlstein spoke to, including David Farber, Thomas Sugrue, and Doug Rossinow (among others) its hard for me to buy that the profession kept good historians from publishing really good work.
Third, the material of the 1960s as a decade seemed to inspire some innovative historical work. Along these lines I see David Farber’s first book, Chicago ’68 (1988) as pioneering effort to integrate a multitude of voices that comprised the 1960s in a way that did not privilege any particular group. Other books in this genre might include: Tim Tyson’s Radio Free Dixie and a colleague of mine from graduate school, Derek Catsum’s Freedom’s Main Line, just to name a few.
Finally, in the field of diplomatic history, Jeremi Suri’s 2003 book Power and Protest established a new intellectual platform for doing international history by combining multi-national archives with very solid political, intellectual, and social histories.
I am curious where others see the historiography of the 1960s headed and how scholarship of other decades might help a critical revisiting of the 1960s.