U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Sixties? So What!

The image on the left is the poster for the documentary on SDS, Rebels with a Cause. The promotional material for the film declares: Rebels

“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.

14 Thoughts on this Post

  1. You make excellent points, Ray. As far as decade-themed historiography goes, the 60s have the strongest hold on the American historical discipline because so many of the leaders of our discipline came of political age in the swirls of the civil rights, antiwar, and feminist movements. This makes it much harder to disaggregate the forest from the trees. But obviously plenty of historians have managed to do so, some of whom you point to here (and, of course, elsewhere you mention David Steigerwald’s great book on the 60s).

    As far as synthetic treatment goes, I often teach the Kazin/Isserman book, “America Divided.” Both Kazin and Isserman were active New Leftists, yet it seems gained enough critical distance to enable for solid treatment of not only the New Left but the decade as a whole. They classify the 60s as polarized, correctly to my mind. Related to polarization, which goes against the grain of thinking the 60s are all about the leftist social movements, Dan Williams is co-editing an anthology of 60s conservatism–a sort of Schulman/Zelizer thing (“Rightward Bound”) but focused on the 60s instead of the 70s. I wonder if they will argue the 60s are the key decade for conservatism (the way Schulman and Zelizer made the case for the 70s)? I wonder if such an argument makes sense? If so, this really complicates our understanding of that decade.

    One final question: Is decade-themed history peculiar to 20th-century historiography? Is there an 1830s historiography separate from an 1840s historiography? Did dividing time according to the decimal system become more prevalent in the 20th century, or do we do this as historians because the history os so recent? And since we probably all recognize that historical transformation does not take place on January 1 of each new decade, when do the 60s begin and end? I’ve seen 1963-1974 as a common bracket. Cheers.

  2. IS there anything to the idea that since so many of the voices that were first heard on 1960s history came from the participant/observer group that when new ideas come out they are speaking against that earlier cannon? So that when good history comes out that contradicts the traditional point of view it will be challenged not just by the participant/observers who have a vested interest in seeing their version of the story remain predominant but also by non-participants who went to school and read the participant/observer texts?

    If this is the case it might take more than a few post-1960s voices to be added before we might see a real paradigm shift away from the standard narrative.

    I think that we are at an in-between stage where most academics have an understanding of the 1960s that is more complete and more nuanced than that of the population at large. Popular images, films, and music have kept the 1960s mired in the leftist-gone-wild narrative for most casual observers. When I ask my students what they think of when they think of the 1960s I get; Woodstock, Kennedy, Civil Rights, Protests, The Beatles, etc. When I tell them about the realignment of American politics over the course of the decade that led to a new conservative movement that developed a plan for a permanent Republican majority (and achieved a 40 year long rightward shift during which only one Democrat polled more than 50% of the popular vote for President) they usually look confused.

  3. I am an almost-1960s participant/observer–but young enough to be part of the “mass” rather than of the “leadership.” Thus, the “how me and my friends changed the world” approach did not apply, nor did it appeal intellectually. But I am close enough to having lived through many of the episodes of the work that does exist, and I am certainly close to many of its authors, so that I began the 1960s chapter of my last book on feminism (The Feminist Promise, 1792 to the Present) with some trepidation . The received wisdom had heft, more so than is usual with me.

    The finished chapter certainly has more of a critical edge than I expected, going into it. The transformative experience was the archives–spending a year with 2nd wave feminist materials in the Schlesinger LIbrary. It was a major, salutary reorientation to the contemporaneous self-representations of the feminist movement which have been replicated time and again in the scholarship and memoirs.
    As for the above post–the observation that we’re in a stage when academics have a more nuanced understanding of the ‘sixties–I only wish. Seeing the widespread endorsement in the universities of the narrative of the Weathermen as a bunch of kindly Quakers–a la the Bill Ayers affair–told me that ideology is alive and kicking, now as in 1968.

    Christine Stansell, The University of Chicago

  4. Andrew, at one time it was quite popular to study the 1780s as a specific unit; the 1790s, too. I’d say the idea of studying decades is simply an extension of the attempt to find demarcations in history by which one can trace and identify developments of various sorts.

    For example, one sees repeatedly in histories of the Enlightenment and/or eighteenth-century France the assertion that the intellectual, political, and cultural climates were quite different after 1750 than they were before. The same is true to a lesser extent of the 1780s compared to the before of the 1780s and after of the Revolution. If I thought longer and harder, I’m sure I could come up with examples from earlier periods in early modern history, such as developments during the Renaissance and Reformation. I’d bet intellectual history would be especially amenable to that sort of approach given the way ideas can take hold and spread. Think only of England after Darwin.

    Overall, I’d say this is simply another manifestation of periodization. I think you’re right that the ’60s’ appeal is because it’s so recent and so many of its students were alive then and participated during it. And it’s easier to study decades in modern history than it is for, say, the thirteenth century. But I don’t think decadal history is a special case. It’s what historians have always done, updated to their present circumstances.

  5. More examples. I’m pretty sure there’s a distinct historiography of the 1850s. That seems an obvious one, as much of it is about trying to figure out what was going on in the decade leading up to the Civil War. The 1630s in England gets a lot of attention for similar reasons.

  6. I wonder if periodization by decades has anything to do with changes in public education institutions/pedagogy in the 20th century.

    I’m totally making this up off the top of my pointy head — but perhaps decadal periodization makes for easier textbook publication, or easier standardized testing.

    One way to test my on-the-fly hypothesis would be to ask: when did decadal periodization begin? My wild guess would be that it’s a Progressive-era phenomenon — historians’ version of a Dewey decimal system. But that’s just a hunch.

    What say you, Andrew?

  7. See Christopher Lasch, “Counting by Tens.” Salmagundi, no. 81 (Winter 1989): 51-60 for a critique of the idea of historiography by decades. The beginning of this is, I believe, Frederick Lewis Allen’s Only Yesterday, on the 1920s. Ever since, the mass media and popular culture have sought a thumbnail version of each decade, including, of course, Tom Wolfe’s famous “Me Decade” of the 1970s. Overcoming the images and generalizations that inform these images (the 50s was an age of conformity and complacency, the 60s an age of youthful rebellion and rock and roll, etc.).

  8. I would definitely agree that we tend to think of the 20th century in terms of decades. As Dan Wickberg points out, each has a specific set of images and generalizations attached to it that are immediately conjured up with the name: the Twenties, the Thirties, the Forties, etc. I’d say the names themselves help in that regard. What does one call the 1900s or the 1910s, for example? Hence the debate about what to call the first decade of the present century. The Aughts? The Aughties? The Naughts?

  9. Interesting conversation. LD, I don’t think progressive education/textbooks had that much to do with categorizing in decades, at least not until the Cold War. The textbooks I’ve read from the 1930s didn’t do this. I think the decade thing first became common among those who came of age in the 30s. The 30s were so starkly different form the 20s, and they even had a date to point to when this change began–when the stock market crashed. Also, the 30s weighed on the brains of the postwar living like a nightmare. Postwar intellectuals distilled so much through the 30s.

  10. Thanks for the post Ray. You got me going here on the topic. Apologies for the long, rambling post.

    Part 1

    I wonder if its useful here to think particularly about intellectual history in relation to 60s historiography?

    To that end, an unheralded overview of the decade is Howard Brick’s Age of Contradiction (http://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/cup_detail.taf?ti_id=3517), which mapped out the ideological underpinnings of the 1960s around the theme of binary contradictions (authenticity and artifice; community and mass society; systems and the distrust of order; etc.). By going deeper into intellectual currents, and covering a wide range of texts and cultural artifacts, Brick moved past the now-stale contrast between participant memoir-history (I was there, man!) vs. post-60s generational resentment (will you ever get out of the way, baby boomers!).

  11. Part 2

    But more to the point, I’d argue that if we build upon Brick’s work, one starts to see a number of schools of thought on the decade worth further consideration and clarification. Here’s three I can think of right away. There’s probably more.

    (1) Movement studies: even more than participant-history, what defined so much early historical work on the 1960s was an effort to make sense of the amorphous but powerful movements on the left. How did their component parts (civil rights, peace movement, anti-Vietnam War, liberals, unions, New Dealers in government, communists, social democrats, counterculture, communes, feminism, gay rights, ethnic rights movements, youth movement, etc.) fit together. I think these studies often revolved around debates between splitters (Todd Gitlin’s Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, for instance, solidified the contemporaneous distinctions between “politocs” and “freaks” as well as between men and women in around the rise of women’s liberation and between blacks and whites around the rise of militant black nationalism) and lumpers (Doug Rossinow’s amazing The Politics of Authenticity, which uses the case study of Austin Texas to notice the overlap between political activists in SDS and the counterculture). Sara Evans work can be included here, as it notices the roots of second-wave feminism in the African-American civil rights movement. I think you could place Jeremi Suri in the lumper camp too, because he creates a very broad definition of counterculture (Betty Friedan counts as countercultural in his recent article for JAH, Jeremi Suri, “The Rise and Fall of an International Counterculture, 1960–1975,” American Historical Review 114, 1 (February 2009): 45-68) in order to link domestic and international politics. You could include many other studies. What they all share is the question of how the parts fit together ideologically to constitute an explosion of cultural and political energies in the 1960s.

  12. Part 3

    (2) Conservative studies: in the last twenty years or so, as historians have grappled with the political and cultural success of the so-called “Reagan Revolution,” with the rise of the neoliberal New Democrats and the neoconservative right in American politics, there has been a loud call to capture stories and histories beyond the social movements on the left, to expand the historical tableau. David Farber and Jeff Roche’s essay collection on the conservative 1960s comes to mind here; Michael Flamm’s work on law and order; Nancy McLean’s study of contestations over the workplace and economic justice includes much on the right; and many other books. I think it’s fair to say that this subfield has fully arrived on the scene within the profession, even if there continue to be more cartoonish Woodstock hippies free love portrayals of the 60s in the popular imagination (why the lag here seems like a really important question!).

    One book that moves between these two subfields of left movement history and conservative history is Rebecca Klatch’s work on the ideological links between libertarian right and left in both SDS (Students for a Democratic Society, those “Rebels with a Cause”) and Young Americans for Freedom (YAF). Klatch, a sociologist, noticed that the libertarians found common cause in the counterculture’s anti-authoritarian, individualistic wing, where, as David Farber notes in a fabulous essay in the collection Imagine Nation, edited by Michael William Doyle and Peter Braunstein, about “outlaw” drug culture in relation to state power.

  13. Part 4

    (3) Mass culture – Counterculture: Maybe you could fold this in to the movement studies focus, but I see many 1960s books of recent years concerned with the question of how culture industry related to the politics of the counterculture in the 1960s. But I’m separating it out here because it seems to me that this focus, like the conservative subfield, emerged out of later concerns with the commodification of dissent and the so-called “conquest of cool” in the 1980s and 90s. Tom Frank’s work is crucial here: his study of the advertising and marketing industries located the transition from mass culture to niche marketing and the selling of rebellion in the 1960s. Other works have tried to complicate Frank’s ideological undermining of some kind of stable, authentic counterculture movement in the 1960s. Julie Stephens’ unheralded book, Anti-Disciplinary Politics, is chock full of insights into the counterculture’s intersections with culture industry. Nick Bromell’s Tomorrow Never Knows is a memoir-history in the old school model, but it goes right at the topics of rock music and drugs that dominate popular representations of the 60s, and it does so with subtlety and sophistication. Fred Turner’s work on the ideological connections between counterculture and cyberculture, dating all the way back to systems theory in the research labs of the World War II years and transforming the search for harmonious community into rather nasty forms of neoliberal information economy exploitation, and Sam Binkley’s study of the counterculture’s ideological groundwork for the post-Fordist production and consumption of lifestyles, also bring far greater sophistication to Frank’s ideas about the conquest of cool. What all these studies share is a concern with the intellectual twists and turns of countercultural desires and their reincorporations into (or creations by!) corporate consumer capitalism.

    I actually would argue that the field of 1960s history is poised to move past both the participants vs. non-participants binary and the conservative vs. radical history paradigm. At the center of this turn is letting go of questions of success or failure and turning instead to the ways that particular events, stories, archival source, memories, artifacts continue to resonate in contemporary perceptions of dilemmas and problems in American life as they relate to the deep wellsprings of American ideology and sensibility. Intellectual history (and cultural history too, I think) have some of the best tools for accessing this. Despite how much has been written, I think there is a surprising amount of work still left to do on the 1960s.


  14. In an undergraduate course on 20th century US intellectual history, we were assigned Godfrey Hodgson’s America in Our Time for the 1960s and 1970s. Am I wrong that Hodgson wasn’t a participant, or is he the exception that proves the rule?

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