U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Just Bust a Move

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.

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’m intrigued by this particular post for a couple of reasons. First the fact that there are some references future readers just may not understand is very interesting to me, especially with the way in which common cultural reference points seem to be changing so rapidly. As for calling it the Age of Fracture, I don’t see why not. But is that era even over?

    Also I’ll have to check out those books you mentioned in passing. I wasn’t aware of The Other Eighties, but I’m glad to see more dealing with the Left in this time period.

  2. Robert, I thought you might be interested in The Other Eighties. I’ll let you know what I think when I get to it.

    On cultural referents — Patterson started out by noting that “The Buckets” was “a popular comic strip” in 1996. So he’s assuming his readership might be unfamiliar with that particular comic strip. But it probably didn’t occur to him — nor would it have occurred to me, I’m sure — that readers in the very near future might not even be familiar with comic strips, or how they appear(ed) on the page.

    I haven’t heard anyone describe a comic strip lately. In fact, I don’t think I’ve looked at a printed comic in five years. My consumption of ephemeral media is almost entirely electronic. Different reading experience, certainly.

    Anyway, I’m glad you liked the post. The historiography of the 1980s/90s is sparse, it seems to me — too close to have had much written yet. Andrew posted on the historiography of the culture wars a while back, but I can’t find too many broader studies of the period.

    Let’s make a list!

  3. The embargo sounds interesting — I suppose that’s what I’ve been doing (don’t tell HCR!). The long discussion after Eric’s post you link to was also interesting, but I can’t help feeling its relevance is rapidly dwindling, as fewer PhD candidates anticipate a junior faculty position and the need to publish a tenure book. Thus, if we really care about our topics and communicating them to someone, the crucial question becomes WHO? If the audience is wider than the community of scholars (and you know I think it ought to be), then what is the actual relevance of the referee/gatekeeper function Eric refers to?

    Put another way, I think you’re right to do the book before (or at very least concurrent with) the diss.

  4. Dan, that wasn’t exactly what I meant — I just meant that I’d try to write my dissertation as if it were a book. But that’s big talk right now when I’m just starting out! Check with me in six months and see how this grand plan is going.

    What I won’t do is aim for a less than outstanding dissertation so that I can “save something” for the book. I’m all in, going all out. Don’t know how else to do things.

  5. I think I got that. But part of it has to do with doing more than historiography, right? Seems to me the dissertations that become books that get read do more than reinterpret or complicate existing stories. They seem, IMO, to tell a story of their own. I guess there’s an argument to be made that those are two different processes/skillsets. I hope not. But maybe that’s me — I’ve been accused of being “light on analysis” (but not by people who actually know me).

  6. “let’s make a list”

    In terms of surveys, I saw a while back in a library Joshua Freeman’s ‘American Empire’, which covers 1945-2000 in the Penguin History of the U.S. series. Didn’t find time to read it beyond a page here and there; appeared to be very well written.

  7. Thanks LFC. I will add Freeman to the list.

    BTW, I think “Let’s make a list” is probably this blog’s equivalent of “Hey kids, let’s do a show!” We are a list-happy bunch.

  8. I like calling the period between 1975 and 1990 the “age of nightmares” as a twist on the title of Phillip Jenkins’ book (which I would also highly recommend). The other book I would recommend on the 1980s is Greg Grandin’s “Empire’s Workshop” on how American policy in Latin America during the Reagan years laid out a blueprint for later policy in the Middle East under George W. Bush.

Comments are closed.