Why do historians seem to have a need to divide history into neat eras? And then endlessly debate when those eras actually began or ended? Did the Civil War begin with the firing on Fort Sumter, or did it really start sometime before April 1861? Maybe 1854 with the border war between pro-slavery Missourians and free-state Kansans? Maybe with John Brown’s Harper’s Ferry raid? Did it really end at Appomattox? Or when Johnston surrendered? Or was Reconstruction a continuation of the Civil War? Many historians have said that the fight for civil rights ended with the election of Hayes in 1876 and didn’t resume until the 1950s with Little Rock’s Central High. I’ve argued in earlier posts that the fight for civil rights never ended because it was never just about African-Americans.
I noted in my last post that I’ve been delving into more recent history and, lo and behold, the same question arises. When did the 1960s really start and when did they really end? A few of the books I’ve been reading attempt to answer that very question.
As the title suggests, Fire And Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, And the Lost Story Of 1970 by David Browne, combines the stories of some the music industry’s biggest acts (and among my favorites) with the era’s social and political history to argue that the sixties actually did end in 1970. For a review of Fire and Rain see here.
Reading Browne’s book whet my appetite for more on those years of my youth which led me to Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland. I found Nixonland to be a fascinating read. Published in 2008, Nixonland, according to wiki, “was named one of the three best books of the year by the editors at Amazon.com and a New York Times notable book for 2008, and has been named on year-end ‘best of’ lists by over a dozen publications.” After 748 pages describing the chaos of the sixties that Perlstein argues was exploited by Richard Nixon for personal political power, Perlstein closes by asking, ”Do Americans not hate each other enough to fantasize about killing one another, in cold blood, over political and cultural disagreements? It would be hard to argue they do not. How did Nixonland end? It has not ended yet.” This is a chilling assessment. In his review of Nixonland, George Will challenged Perlstein, writing, “America has long since gone off the boil. The nation portrayed in Perlstein’s compulsively readable chronicle, the America of Spiro Agnew inciting ‘positive polarization’ and the New Left laboring to ‘heighten the contradictions,’ is long gone.” Since it’s been nearly five years since the book and the review appeared, I wonder if either writer has changed their thoughts on the subject. I highly recommend reading Nixonland, but I also suggest reading Ross Douthat’s review.
Perlstein essentially concludes with Nixon’s re-election in 1972, so the book I’m reading now seems like a natural follow-up, 1973 Nervous Breakdown by Andreas Killen. Killen argues that the 1960s really ended in 1973. The year I graduated from high school! I mentioned in my last post that I don’t remember a lot of what was happening in the 60s and 70s (and, I should probably say, not because I was high :)) and all three of these books have contained stories that further confirm that. Killen spends several pages dissecting what was apparently the first reality tv show, An American Family. According to Killen, the show was watched by 11 million Americans. I don’t think I’d ever heard of it until reading this book. The show was apparently about a family living in Santa Barbara, California. Geographically, I wasn’t too far away, but judging by the way Killen describes this family, I was a million miles away. I did find Killen’s description of the ending of the Vietnam War and the return of the POWs to be quite interesting. Killen wrote, “the continuing prevalence of myth, false memory, and fantasy in representations of the Vietnam War finally suggests the extent to which Americans experienced the war as a fundamental rupture in their history, indeed as a kind of crisis in the very fabric of history itself.” You could almost insert “Civil” in place of “Vietnam” in that sentence. Killen also notes that “the Vietnamese vision of history is one that, unlike its American counterpart, which is linear and progressive, sees history in cyclical terms, as part of a pattern of growth and decay.” Hmmm, have to think about that some more…