The Intellectual Context
If there are several expressions that can help to try and distil the values of a particular historical moment – Zeitgeist, ‘spirit of the age,’ ‘sign of the times’ – none automatically coincides with the ten-year period known as the decade. Although potentially tempting as an object of study, the tendency to make decade-length periods in American cultural history cohere under catchy epithets now seems clumsy and inadequate. Plenty of the culture produced during the 1920s, for instance, cannot be sufficiently understood by relying on terms like the Jazz Age or the Roaring Twenties; much is lost by substituting the Great Depression for the 1930s; while using the ‘sixties’ as a signifier for a whole array of positive or negative changes – depending on one’s point of view – may satisfy the desire for cultural nostalgia, the demands of conservatism, or a belief in the possibility of liberal progress, but does little to provide critical leverage on the decade’s complex social and cultural changes.
This situation is even more obviously a problem for those looking in on the US from the outside. Distance, and an attitude towards area studies that emphasizes national and cultural homogeneity, have tended to result in US culture being looked at through the telescope rather than the microscope. Paul Giles has noted how British and European treatments of American culture, from Henry Salt in the nineteenth century and D. H. Lawrence in the 1920s onwards, have been dominated by the ‘illusion of synchronicity,’1 whereby cultural texts are subsumed within thematic generalizations, the purpose of which is to try to sum up a national cultural condition. Developments in the study of American culture from the 1970s onwards, particularly in the US, increasingly tested the viability of this kind of methodology as the recovery of