One of my favorite historiographical essays appeared in the early summer of 1996 in a now defunct journal that probably quite a few of you used to read, Lingua Franca. I forget how I ran into it, but it was written by Rick Perlstein and contains all of the qualities his readers have come to expect: a rich, often puckish sense of irony; sharp but well-measured judgments; a gift for juxtaposition and an unerring eye for quotes. You can still read “Who Owns the Sixties?” online here. (Also, I would like to say that I wrote this post before I knew that Andrew Hartman was also going to write about Perlstein, though I obviously did know that Robert had written about him somewhat last Sunday and Tim even before that. At any rate, I swear the USIH bloggers aren’t being paid to promote The Invisible Bridge!)
“Who Owns the Sixties?” is about what was then a new phenomenon—the rise of a younger, debunking-minded generation of scholars of the Sixties (Doug Rossinow, Alice Echols, and Tom Sugrue are among those quoted) and their conflicts with the participant generation who wrote the first wave of Sixties histories (e.g., Todd Gitlin, Maurice Isserman). Perlstein did a fine job of giving space both to what I guess we could call the human drama of this quarrel—the tensions it created professionally, the frustrations it generated personally—as well as the wider intellectual stakes of the problem of doing recent history and the difficulty of telling participants of a past era that their memories are incomplete, self-centered, or otherwise distorted.
But 1996 was itself a long time ago now, and we are looking not at the Sixties as the unbroken sod of historiography, but the Eighties, and increasingly, the Nineties. Between 1996 and 1968 was 28 years; 28 years ago was… 1986. Grad school friends of mine whose work broaches or includes the Eighties do not seem, to me at any rate, to have faced any of the skepticism or disagreeableness that grad students in the Nineties encountered while writing about the Sixties—despite the fact that many of us have few firsthand memories of the Eighties, or, to be more specific, of the Reagan years. Perhaps this lack of generational tension points to the genuine exceptionalism of the Sixties—there is little reason to protect the Eighties (or the Seventies) from the intrusive questions of those who “weren’t there.”
Yet that is not to say that there is no generation gap—it is just a very different kind than that which separates Gitlin and Sugrue. Perlstein described the point of disagreement (correctly, I think) between Gitlin’s account of the Sixties and Sugrue’s account as being basically the difference between a history that emphasizes rupture and one that emphasizes continuity. In more general terms, the younger generation wanted to demystify, to invert, to be iconoclastic; their elders understandably felt they had done a pretty good job the first time in telling their histories.
The outlines of the Eighties generation gap are not yet clear, though there does not seem to be the same will to demystification among the current younger generation that animated the scholarship of the post-60s scholars. But perhaps that is itself a sign of what is to come. One of the reasons that there appears to be little will to demystify is that there is so little from the Eighties that has retained even a shred of mystique, at least among liberals or leftists.
What instead may turn out to be the case is that my generation of scholars will inevitably push back against the general repulsion with which so many left-leaning scholars who lived through the decade regard the Eighties. That is not to say that the entities of the Eighties which originally produced that repulsion will be re-evaluated—Oliver North somehow rehabilitated by an archly contrarian leftist—but that the contours of the decade will be shaken up to raise new formations to prominence, formations which might hold some attraction, or at least sympathetic interest for my generation.
At the tail end of Perlstein’s essay, he quotes Gitlin as saying that the generation of 60s revisionists had a “parricidal impulse.” That seems dubious in hindsight, as the demystifiers have pretty thoroughly routed the participants, but parricide is not, at any rate, what stands on the other side of a generation gap straddling the Eighties.
Don’t trust any historian over 35? Pshaw… but don’t let her tell you all Eighties music was crap.