There’s something happening here: a critical review of recent studies of the 60s

Editor’s note: Ken Jackson teaches a course at Boston University’s Metropolitan College on the 60s. We asked him to share some of his knowledge and he provided a critical analysis of two current (and one quite recent) publications.

Mark Kurlansky. 1968: The Year that Rocked the World.
New York: Ballantine, 2004.

Mark Kurlansky is the author of bestsellers Salt and Cod. 1968: The Year that Rocked the World is a richly researched popular narrative that hangs an international history of the sixties on this single year.

The overall organization is chronological. He starts with the first week of 1968, combing newspapers for significant events. The book proceeds through winter, spring, summer, and fall, but within that pattern are chapters about other topics: heroes, poetry, television, and more.

This book charts the year in international revolution with details of revolt in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Germany, France, Biafra, and Mexico as well as Columbia, Berkeley, and Mayor Daley’s Chicago.

Kurlansky’s use of 1968 is a conscious device. For example, he opens a chapter by almost claiming that second wave feminism began with a demonstration against the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City staged by the New York Radical Women, but then he tracks back to Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 The Second Sex and Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique of 1963.

Kurlansky does not have a thesis to explain the worldwide revolutionary tide of the period. The anti-colonial forces freed at the end of World War Two inspired the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. The tactics developed by the Civil Rights Movement became the tactics of student movements in Paris, Prague, Chicago, and elsewhere, but the issues, Kurlansky notes, were often local and sometimes trivial. And it is the local and almost trivial detail that makes Kurlansky’s 1968 one of the most readable histories of the year and the era.

Henry Finder. The 60s: The Story of a Decade.
New York: Random House, 2016.

This book might be better subtitled “The Stories of a Decade.” This is an anthology of pieces published in The New Yorker magazine during the sixties rather than any sort of narrative history.

Larissa MacFarquhar makes the best argument for such a collection in her introductory note to one of the nine parts:

Once a decade becomes an adjective, it’s transformed into a cartoon version of itself, and it becomes very difficult to remember what living through it was actually like. This is the reason to read journalism long after its moment has passed: because it doesn’t know what’s coming. Historians know what’s going to happen, but journalists don’t, any more than their subjects do, and this ignorance can convey better than hindsight the peculiar temper of the time. (397)

The stunning examples of this effective ignorance are pieces like Joseph Wechsberg’s “Letter from Prague” of April 27, 1968. This catches the street-level exhilaration of the Prague Spring before the Soviet tanks rolled in in August.

The New Yorker represents “the culture,” not “the counterculture.”  Those writers who attempted to be more participant-observers of the sixties, like Tom Wolfe or Norman Mailer, were more likely to write for Esquire, Playboy, or Rolling Stone. The New Yorker writers often translate the strange goings-on of the time to the magazine’s demographic. For example, Nat Hentoff watches Bob Dylan record his fourth album from the studio control room and explains to New Yorker readers that a “talking blues” is “a wry narrative in a sardonic recitative style.” (424)

The New Yorker in the sixties was not hip or political, but it included some of the best American writing of the time. This collection includes selections from all-star pieces the magazine published: Rachel Carson “Silent Spring,” Truman Capote “In Cold Blood,” Calvin Trillin on civil rights, E. B. White on the assassination of JFK, Lillian Ross on Telstar, John McPhee on Arthur Ashe, Jane Kramer on Allen Ginsberg, Pauline Kael on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Ellen Willis on Woodstock. Poetry and fiction sections are surprisingly brief, but they include nothing but greatest hits: James Dickey, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Anne Sexton, James Merrill, John Updike “A & P,” John Cheever “The Swimmer,” and Donald Barthelme “The Indian Uprising.”

The 60s: The Story of a Decade reminds us that Woodstock Nation arrived at different times in different places, if at all.  Its almost-700 pages of first-rate writing will probably deliver more than one madeleine-like moment when you least expect it.

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