Today I am reading about the embargo.
No, not that embargo — the Carter administration’s embargo on the exportation of grain to the Soviet Union, to protest the war in Afghanistan.
I’m making my way through the first of three titles I acquired which offer a sort of survey / overview of the last 25 years or so of the twentieth century. (Can we just call it now historiographically, and start referring to this time period as the Age of Fracture?)
The first title on my list — the one I am reading today — is James T. Patterson’s Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005). This is pretty much a traditional political history, smartly written by a preeminent and very readable historian who, while not inattentive to culture, has certainly not taken the cultural turn.
Nevertheless — or consequently? — Patterson offers a magisterial view of the landscape, as is fitting for a volume written for The Oxford History of the United States. Other volumes in this series include the similarly magisterial What Hath God Wrought by Daniel Walker Howe, Battle Cry of Freedom by James M. McPherson, and Freedom from Fear by David M. Kennedy. Patterson is the only historian to write two volumes for the series; his earlier contribution, Grand Expectations: The United States 1945-1974 (1996), was awarded the Bancroft in 1997.
This is a book I would recommend to answer the basic question, “What are some key events of national consequence that occurred during this time period?” I am not reading this book to gauge the sensibilities of earlier eras — except insofar as those sensibilities come through in Patterson’s prose.
What do I mean?
Well, one thing that’s very interesting is what Patterson assumes the reader will connect with, and what the reader already knows. For example, he begins his first chapter with a detailed panel-by-panel description of a comic strip from “The Buckets,” syndicated in newspapers during the 1990s. The description is old-school and masterful in this sense: it renders the visual into the verbal. It is also old-school in the sense that “starting with a cartoon” — a cartoon that must be described instead of shown — seems to be a well-worn mode of introducing a discussion about a particular issue. Many the Sunday sermon — and, perhaps, many the conference paper — has begun with a frame-by-frame re-telling of “Peanuts.”
For Patterson to use that device here marks his writing as pertaining to a particular “style,” in the Barzunian sense that historical writing bears the impress of the historian’s time. Patterson is writing for an audience that reads newspapers, and that knows how to “tell” a comic strip. In twenty-five years, I suppose, a reader might pick up Patterson’s book, read the first paragraph of the chapter, and wonder, “What’s a comic strip?” The comic in question is included in the illustrations at the center of the book. But the notion that “the comics” were found in a section of the daily newspaper, and were ranged in two or maybe three vertical columns, always appearing in the same spot on the page — this will be something that future students of history might need to have explained to them.
This is not to fault Patterson. His object of analysis is not popular culture, or material culture, or even “American culture” in general. He is looking at events and actors, at political campaigns and election results, at public opinion in the aggregate. The comic strip, the editorial cartoon, the magazine cover, the album lyric — these for Patterson are documents containing evidence that supports an argument he is making based on more traditional sources.
For my present purposes — nailing down the historiography of the 1980s so that I can explain how my dissertation is going to bust a move — this is a good place to begin.
Besides Patterson, the other books on my to-be-read-soon list are Bradford Martin’s The Other Eighties, which is a history of the Left during the period, and Robert M. Collins’s Transforming America. I’ll write about those in future posts.
As to the embargo (yes, that embargo): at my university I have the option of embargoing my dissertation for one year, and that’s what I plan to do. I also plan to not worry that a dissertation is supposed to be significantly different from a book, and just write a damn book. I want to thank the historians who have written to me (in response to this query) to let me know that this is doable, and that they’ve done it, and to encourage me to give it a try.
I believe I will.