Book Reviews -- the Sixties: From Memory to History Edited by David Farber

Article excerpt

The Sixties: From Memory to History. David Farber, editor. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Studies of the 19670s keep on proliferating, with many of the best so far written by those who were participants or observers. David Farber's collection of ten new essays on the period, however, is specifically a work not of memory but of historical interpretation, not nostalgia, self-criticism, and/or self-justification by hippies, yippies, or flippies (in Mayor Daley's rhyming contribution to the verbal music of the time), but a well-researched and sensibly planned collective account by a group of scholars very much aware of their analytical role as later commentators. For this alone, the book is extremely valuable. The Sixties is in fact an attempt to remove the period from retro fashion and recombinant fad, from the songs, stories, explosions, tribal fests, and we blew it's that make up the specifics in the rich cultural storehouse of icons, legends, and sensory images of a period at once still too much with us but nonetheless sufficiently distant in the past to demand critical detachment and scholarly breadth.

Farber and his team of essay writers focus their attention on the cultural and political life of America in what they conceive of as a period of change that, though it might have been particularly dramatic, nonetheless forms an integral part of the complex patterns and continuing flux of post-World War II America. As the editor notes in his introduction, two intertwined considerations provide dual topoi throughout the volume. Thus the issues and events of the sixties, including the war, the nature and influence of federal government, the various political and social movements (civil rights, the New Left, women's rights, even the new right), prosperity and consumer desire, self-styled radicalism in all its variety, were in Farber's words "shaped and contested through the changing nature of cultural authority and political legitimacy."

The result of this double focus is a book that in perspective shifts compellingly from the specifics of popular culture and temporally local political events to wider understandings; not infrequently, background summaries of one, two, three or more decades of political, economic, and societal change provide the substance of essays. Sometimes this seems to result in a skewed attention, as if a closer illumination might put history too deeply in shadow. The problem is of course inherent in an age perhaps overdetermined for its future readings--and thus unwieldy, multifarious, too thickly textured, consequently indeterminate. For instance, the Vietnam War, while present in many references throughout the ten essays (and especially as mirrored in the even-handed summary by Chester J. Pach, Jr., of its treatment in network news), is discussed directly in no more than half a dozen pages in Mary Sheila McMahon's contribution on the war itself. In this, the longest study in the book, the war as historical event is presented less as a sixties occurrence than as an unfortunate accidental misfortune visited upon a strategically marginal geographical locale by a long-fermenting domestic American ideological dispute (and spat among political elites) between traditional values and the newly powerful activist state with its apparatus. Interesting, illuminating, but much knowledge about the war and the period is assumed. And personally, I found it also a bit unsettling--intentionally so, no doubt--that what we still loosely call the Movement (the decade's social activism in general, and particularly the New Left) is likewise never confronted head-on. …