Talkin’ Sixties Historiography Blues

ramblin’ round your historical subfields.

X-post from U.S. Intellectual History blog comments.

Thanks for the post Ray. You got me going here on the topic. Apologies for the long, rambling post.

I wonder if it’s useful here to think particularly about intellectual history in relation to 60s historiography? To that end, an unheralded overview of the decade is Howard Brick’s Age of Contradiction, which mapped out the ideological underpinnings of the 1960s around the theme of binary contradictions (authenticity and artifice; community and mass society; systems and the distrust of order; etc.). By going deeper into intellectual currents, and covering a wide range of texts and cultural artifacts, Brick moved past the now-stale contrast between participant memoir-history (I was there, man!) vs. post-60s generational resentment (will you ever get out of the way, baby boomers!).

But more to the point, I’d argue that if we build upon Brick’s work, one starts to see a number of schools of thought on the decade worth further consideration and clarification. Here’s three I can think of right away. There are probably more:

(1) Movement studies: even more than participant-history, what defined so much early historical work on the 1960s was an effort to make sense of the amorphous but powerful movements on the left. How did their component parts (civil rights, peace movement, anti-Vietnam War, liberals, unions, New Dealers in government, communists, social democrats, counterculture,  communes, feminism, gay rights, ethnic rights movements, youth movement, etc.) fit together. I think these studies often revolved around debates between splitters (Todd Gitlin’s The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, for instance, solidified the contemporaneous distinctions between “politocs” and “freaks” as well as between men and women in around the rise of women’s liberation and between blacks and whites around the rise of militant black nationalism) and lumpers (Doug Rossinow’s amazing The Politics of Authenticity, which uses the case study of Austin Texas to notice the overlap between political activists in SDS and the counterculture). Sara Evans work can be included here, as it notices the roots of second-wave feminism in the African-American civil rights movement. I think you could place Jeremi Suri in the lumper camp too, because he creates a very broad definition of counterculture (Betty Friedan counts as countercultural in his recent article for JAH, Jeremi Suri, “The Rise and Fall of an International Counterculture, 1960–1975,” American Historical Review 114, 1 (February 2009): 45-68) in order to link domestic and international politics. You could include many other studies. What they all share is the question of how the parts fit together ideologically to constitute an explosion of cultural and political energies in the 1960s.

(2) Conservative studies: in the last twenty years or so, as historians have grappled with the political and cultural success of the so-called “Reagan Revolution,” with the rise of the neoliberal New Democrats and the neoconservative right in American politics, there has been a loud call to capture stories and histories beyond the social movements on the left, to expand the historical tableau. David Farber and Jeff Roche’s essay collection on the conservative 1960s comes to mind here; Michael Flamm’s work on law and order; Nancy McLean’s study of contestations over the workplace and economic justice includes much on the right; and many other books. I think it’s fair to say that this subfield has fully arrived on the scene within the profession, even if there continue to be more cartoonish Woodstock hippies free love portrayals of the 60s in the popular imagination (why the lag here seems like a really important question!).

One book that moves between these two subfields of left movement history and conservative history is Rebecca Klatch’s work on the ideological links between libertarian right and left in both SDS (Students for a Democratic Society, those “Rebels with a Cause”) and Young Americans for Freedom (YAF). Klatch, a sociologist, noticed that the libertarians found common cause in the counterculture’s anti-authoritarian, individualistic wing, where, as David Farber notes in a fabulous essay in the collection Imagine Nation, edited by Michael William Doyle and Peter Braunstein, about “outlaw” drug culture in relation to state power.


(3) Mass culture – Counterculture: Maybe you could fold this in to the movement studies focus, but I see many 1960s books of recent years concerned with the question of how culture industry related to the politics of the counterculture in the 1960s. But I’m separating it out here because it seems to me that this focus, like the conservative subfield, emerged out of later concerns with the commodification of dissent and the so-called “conquest of cool” in the 1980s and 90s. Tom Frank’s work is crucial here: his study of the advertising and marketing industries located the transition from mass culture to niche marketing and the selling of rebellion in the 1960s. Other works have tried to complicate Frank’s ideological undermining of some kind of stable, authentic counterculture movement in the 1960s. Julie Stephens’ unheralded book, Anti-Disciplinary Politics, is chock full of insights into the counterculture’s intersections with culture industry. Nick Bromell’s Tomorrow Never Knows is a memoir-history in the old school model, but it goes right at the topics of rock music and drugs that dominate popular representations of the 60s, and it does so with subtlety and sophistication. Fred Turner’s work on the ideological connections between counterculture and cyberculture, dating all the way back to systems theory in the research labs of the World War II years and transforming the search for harmonious community into rather nasty forms of neoliberal information economy exploitation, and Sam Binkley’s study of the counterculture’s ideological groundwork for the post-Fordist production and consumption of lifestyles, also bring far greater sophistication to Frank’s ideas about the conquest of cool. What all these studies share is a concern with the intellectual twists and turns of countercultural desires and their reincorporations into (or creations by!) corporate consumer capitalism.

I actually would argue that the field of 1960s history is poised to move past both the participants vs. non-participants binary and the conservative vs. radical history paradigm. At the center of this turn is letting go of questions of success or failure and turning instead to the ways that particular events, stories, archival source, memories, artifacts continue to resonate in contemporary perceptions of dilemmas and problems in American life as they relate to the deep wellsprings of American ideology and sensibility. Intellectual history (and cultural history too, I think) have some of the best tools for accessing this. Despite how much has been written, I think there is a surprising amount of work still left to do on the 1960s.

2 thoughts on “Talkin’ Sixties Historiography Blues

  1. Enjoyed reading your stimulating blog.
    Might you be interested in reviewing a new ebook on the Sixties. Will send a free pre-publication copy on request to

    We are excited to announce the publication of our first book of essays, The Sixties: Reviewing the Decade that Rocked the World.

    The Sixties were an undeniable watershed in our culture and the issues and controversies associated with the decade continue to remain topical, controversial and relevant. In this new book, experienced writers and Sixties` survivors, Mike and Laurence Peters, investigate the era’s complex dimensions through an exploration of some of the key moments, personalities, books, music and films of the period. Ranging widely, the authors take you deeper into the period`s DNA, examining a number of the decade`s key turning points, including Dylan’s decision to “go electric” at the Newport Folk Festival, Mike Nichols casting decisions for The Graduate and the way an obscure German intellectual, Herbert Marcuse, was adopted by the student movement.
    By closely documenting such episodes in 21 written essays, the two writers highlight the effort it took to push back against the largely conformist attitudes of the time, revealing the way that various subversive and “heretical views” became the norms we take for granted today.
    A very intellectually stimulating blog.
    Might you be interested in reviewing a new ebook on the Sixties?
    Can send you a pre-publication copy on request to
    Details below
    The Sixties: Reviewing the Decade that Rocked the World is essential reading for anyone who wants to know why the Sixties still resonate and why we still have something to learn from these years of transformation.

    1. hi I have to write a historical debate about the 60’s on whether it was good or bad using different historians view point on key areas and reading the above would be very interested o reading a bit of the pre-? published book

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *