U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Toward a Canon of 1970s American Thought

The Seventies (long, short, and in between) has emerged in recent years as an object of intensive scholarly investigation. Many historians of the twentieth century now see that decade as a watershed.  It is the focus of books such as Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive and Judith Stein’s Pivotal Decade.  It is the start of Dan Rodgers’s Age of Fracture. It’s the fulcrum of Robert Self’s All in the Family. It is the star of Rick Perlstein’s tomes Nixonland and Invisible Bridge. I’m one of two members of my department currently writing a book on the decade.  But what’s the place of the Seventies in U.S. intellectual history?  What works from the Seventies have made it into the USIH canon? What works should?

Two things have me thinking about these questions this week.  First, I finished the second volume of David Hollinger and Charles Capper’s American Intellectual Tradition — which is, among other things, an exercise in canonization — in my lower-division Honors intellectual history course.  For the first time, I used the 7th edition of this volume, which was published last year.  And the Seventies as a distinctive moment in American thought are largely absent from the volume.  The book contains fifteen texts written in the 1960s, but only two written in the 1970s. And these two – a selection from Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) and Nancy Chodorow’s “Gender, relation, and Difference in Psychoanalytic Perspective” (1979) are from the end of the decade. And both point toward the five following works from the 1980s, which are focused, broadly speaking, on questions of identity and postmodernism.  The last of the Sixties readings, Noam Chomsky’s “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” was published in 1967. So the book skips eleven years, the longest gap in time between any two readings in the volume.[1]

As I was thinking about AIT‘s largely skipping the Seventies this week, Robert Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance passed away. Inspired initially by a paper friend-of-the-blog Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen delivered at the 2010 USIH conference urging intellectual historians to pay more attention to Pirsig and ZATAOMM, a number of our bloggers (myself included) have long been of the opinion that Pirsig’s novel of ideas is an essential text in  the intellectual history of the Seventies.

What texts would one include in a comprehensive intellectual history of the Seventies? How could the Seventies better be represented in a survey collection like AIT, which covers over a century and a half in its second volume? And should historians see the Seventies as an intellectual watershed as well as a social, political, economic, and popular cultural one?

Hollinger and Capper suggest some of what they might add in the chronology of American documents offered at the end of AIT, in which they list twenty-five books from the 1970s:

From 1970:  Robin Morgan, ed., Sisterhood is Powerful; Kate Millett, Sexual Politics; Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato, eds., The Structuralist Controversy, Shulamith Firestone, Dialectic of Sex.

From 1971: John Rawls, Theory of Justice[2]; B.F. Skinner, Beyond Freedom and Dignity; E.O. Wilson, Insect Societies; Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight.

From 1972: Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity.

From 1973: Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow; Daniel Bell, The Coming of Postindustrial Society; Hayden White, Metahistory; Clifford Geertz, Interpretation of Cultures; John Searle, The Campus War.

From 1974: Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

From 1975: E.O. Wilson, Sociobiology; Peter Singer, Animal Liberation.

From 1976: Alex Haley, Roots[3]; Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.

From 1977: Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon; Carl Sagan, Dragons of Eden.

From 1978: Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering; Edward Said, Orientalism.

From 1979: Richard Rorty, Philosophy and The Mirror of Nature[4]; Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism.

This list is a good start, I think, for thinking about American thought in the Seventies. It includes key early 1970s feminist texts, which I would love to see represented in AIT. The Nozick, Singer, and Lasch books seem like essential texts, too. Hayden White, Clifford Geertz, and E.O. Wilson also stand out as particularly important to me.

But some things are missing even from this list. First, it is by design a list of books, so important shorter works do not appear. Books by conservative thinkers, such as Edward C. Banfield’s The Unheavenly City (1970) seem underrepresented. And many significant books in a more popular register are absent: Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970); Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock (1970); Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972); Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974); Gail Sheehy’s Passages (1976); Shere Hite’s The Hite Report on Female Sexuality (1976); Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror (1978); Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach (1979)…and of course Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

What would go in your canon of American thought in the Seventies?


[1] There is a similar gap between Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990) and Thomas Pogge’s “Priorities of Global Justice” (2001), so the 1990s also largely go missing. But it’s fair to say that the 1990s have been – and can be – less historicized at this point than the 1970s. Across all of AIT‘s many editions, the end of Volume II is far and away the collection’s most protean section. Since the volume runs up to the present, Hollinger and Capper’s selection of concluding works is often connected to concerns of the time of an edition’s publication. The 6th edition, published in 2011, was the first to contain 21st century texts and seemed more haunted by 9/11 than the 7th is.  Like the 5th, published in 2006, the 6th contained more readings from the 1990s than the 7th does.  But the 5th and the 6th contain only the same two 1970s texts that the 7th does. You have to go to the 4th edition, published in 2001, to find additional texts from that decade: Samuel Huntington’s “The Democratic Distemper” (1973) and Ralph Ellison’s “The Little Man at Chehaw Station” (1977), which are joined by the Chodorow, but not the Said.  Incidentally, Huntington is represented in the 5th and the 6th editions by 1993’s “Clash of Civilizations,” a text which was given new intellectual life in the reaction to 9/11.  Huntington is entirely absent from the 7th edition.

[2] Rawls is represented in the 7th edition by essay “Justice as Fairness,” which anticipates the argument of Theory of Justice.

[3] Haley is represented in the 7th edition by a selection from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, though it is attributed to Malcolm himself.

[4]  Rorty’s 1986 essay “Science as Solidarity” appears in AIT.

16 Thoughts on this Post

  1. On books that influenced American thought, don’t forget important translations first available in English in the 1970s: Foucault’s *Archaeology of Knowledge* (1970), Gramsci’s *The Prison Notebooks* (1971), Paulo Freire’s *Pedagogy of the Oppressed* (1970, I think), Foucault’s *Discipline and Punish* (1975), Foucault’s *History of Sexuality* (1976), Pierre Bourdieu’s *Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977), Bourdieu’s *Distinction* (1979)

    Other ideas: Halberstam’s *Best and the Brightest* (1972), Comfort’s *The Joy of Sex* (1972), Michael Novak’s *The Rise of Unmeltable Ethnics* (1972), Bloom’s *Anxiety of Influence* (1973), Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll (1973), Engerman/Fogel *Time on the Cross*, Wallerstein’s *The Modern World System* (1974), Studs Terkel, *Working* (1974), Shelby Foote’s *Civil War* (1975), Doctorow’s *Ragtime* (1975), Fussell’s *The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), Dawkins’ *The Selfish Gene* (1976), John Dean’s *Blind Ambition* (1976), Michael Walzer, *Just and Unjust Wars* (1977), Dworkin’s *Taking Rights Seriously* (1977), William Julius Wilson’s *The Declining Significance of Race* (1978), Irving Kristol’s *Two Cheers for Capitalism* (1978), Alfred Chandler’s *The Visible Hand* (1978), Susan Sontag’s *Illness as Metaphor* (1979), Tom Wolfe’s *The Right Stuff* (1979).

    PS: Something by Gore Vidal? Kurt Vonnegut?

    Other books and authors of significance can be found here, courtesy of Daniel Immerwahr. – TL

    • Great additions, Tim! (I had Alex Comfort in my post…and for some reason I edited him out. But I think The Joy of Sex absolutely belongs.)

      I did want to add a note on the first class of works you mention. I was playing by the rules of The American Intellectual Tradition, which only includes works written in America or by Americans. This is a defensible way to frame the collection, but it ends up also being something of a weakness. De Tocqueville’s absence from Volume I is particularly notable. And Volume II gives us the echoes of thinkers like Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud, Weber, Gramsci, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Foucault, and so forth without giving us the non-American thinkers themselves.

  2. The baseline criterion of inclusion here, I take it, is books by American authors, not necessarily books focused on the U.S. — otherwise, for example, Said’s Orientalism could not be on the list.

    I like Tim’s list of possible additions. I would especially second Wallerstein’s The Modern World-System vol. 1 (1974) which, to be picky, requires the hyphen joining the words “world” and “system,” for reasons the author explains. (For purposes of an anthology, one might go w/ his article “The Rise and Future Demise of the World Capitalist System,” written in ’72 and published in ’74.)

    • See my comment above to Tim. I should have been more explicit that I was playing by The American Intellectual Tradition‘s rules. All American authors are fair game, even when, like James Baldwin in the 1950s, they’re not writing in America. Non-American authors can be included when they have relocated to America (as Gunnar Myrdal, Hannah Arendt, and Herbert Marcuse did).

  3. p.s. On the 1990s, addressed in the post’s footnote 1, they prob. should have kept Huntington’s “Clash.” (And is Fukuyama’s orig. “end of history” article included? I forget its exact date; might be 1989.)

    • Fukuyama is a new addition to the 7th edition. And, yes, “The End of History” is from 1989. It’s hard not to conclude that Fukuyama is a kind of substitute for Huntington’s “Clash,” which had been included in the 5th and the 6th editions, but has disappeared from the 7th. The final essay in the 7th is Philip Kitcher’s “Militant Modern Atheism,” which is absolutely a substitute for Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, an excerpt of which was included in the 6th.

      The net impact of these changes is to make the 7th much less 9/11 oriented than the 6th. I’m entirely happy getting rid of the Harris reading. Kitcher tells you what you need to know about contemporary atheism while saying interesting things about it; Harris is a boor and a bore.

      Huntington is a trickier case. I can’t stand “Clash” and it’s a pain in the ass to teach. But, it’s undoubtedly intellectually significant. And it would make for an interested contrast with the Fukuyama (which is a really nice addition).

      The one other thing I’d say about Huntington: when they added “Clash” to the 5th edition in 2006, they removed Huntington’s “The Democratic Distemper,” which was one of the most distinctive 1970s texts Hollinger and Capper have ever included in the volume. I completely understand this decision. Very few thinkers get more than one essay and I don’t think we need to hear so much from Sam Huntington. But we should hear something from him. And I guess if I had to choose one or the other, I’d go with the earlier essay.

      • Thanks for the reply. Tend to agree that one selection from Huntington would be a good idea, and the ‘democratic distemper’ and ‘democratic overload’ stuff from the ’70s is distinctive, I guess — one doesn’t have to agree w/ it of course.

  4. The text that immediately leapt to mind was the Combahee River Collective Statement (1977), which is the founding text of intersectionality. It is widely anthologized and easily available online, so perhaps that accounts for its absence from AIT, but it is such an essential document (and very short) that the marginal cost of including it would seem to be rather light.

    • Excellent addition! And I don’t think AIT has an explicit or implicit widely-available-and-anthologized exclusionary rule.

  5. The OP and Tim’s comment hit on almost everything (and more!) I would want included, but I might throw into the mix:
    Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb, The Hidden Injuries of Class
    Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will

  6. I would add The Paper Chase — the book, the film, and both TV series. It’s very telling to me that in the 1970s, when gender roles were being contested everywhere, this paean to the ivory tower as a particularly masculine kind of space would enjoy such a sustained wave of popularity. I am writing about this right now in my book, and I have written a little bit about this at my own blog today. (There are people in academe who take Kingsfield as their model. These people are, in my experience, all dudes. But YMMV.) In any case, I’m finding The Paper Chase absolutely crucial to my work on ideas about the university in the 1970s.

    • This is why we have comment threads. I would never have thought of including The Paper Chase. But, now that you mention it, I think you’re entirely right about it. Thanks!

  7. Irving Howe’s “The World of Our Fathers” is average as history but sensational as ethnic nostalgia, which I think remains an important force in American life.

  8. What of Carlos Castenada’s books? Although “Teachings of Don Juan” was published in 1968 many of his works were in the 70’s and were influential as an “alternative” philosophical outlook… even though it appears that Don Juan was a fictional character presented as a real anthropological example. My first exposure to this series of books was a reading requirement for a political science class.
    Also, Erica Jong’s “Fear of Flying” and Barry Commoner’s “The Closing Circle”.

  9. An eclectic decade to rethink gender, history, faith, i.e.: Marabel Morgan, The Total Woman; The New English Bible; Stephen King, Carrie; James Fixx, The Complete Book of Running; Gore Vidal, Burr; Harris, I’m OK-You’re OK; Jane Goodall, In the Shadow of Man; Clifford Geertz, Interpretation of Cultures; Daniel J. Boorstin, The Americans; Woodward & Bernstein, All the President’s Men; Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek; Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics; William Styron, Sophie’s Choice; Theda Skocpol, States and Social Revolutions.

    • Along those lines, it might also be worthwhile to consider that though published later as Bachmann books, King started and/or wrote Rage, The Running Man, Roadwork, and The Long Walk during this earlier period in response to the world he was seeing around himself.

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