Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Ten Years After

Randall Stephens

Does decadal history work? Is a ten-year span an arbitrary measurement? Can we learn anything substantial about an "era" by looking at, say, 1880-1890, or 1970-1980? I was asking some of these questions with the students in my America in the 1960s course the other day.

Ian Jack provides some insight on the issue in his LRB review of When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies by Andy Beckett:

The fashion is relatively recent for slicing up history into ten-year periods, each of them crudely flavoured and differently coloured, like a tube of wine gums. Growing up in Britain in the 1950s I never heard the past, however recent, specified by decade. There was ‘the war’ and ‘before the war’, and sometimes, when my parents were burrowing into their childhoods, ‘before the first war’. The 20th century lay stacked in broad layers of time: dark moorland where glistened an occasional white milestone marked with a year and an event. Sometimes the events were large and public. The General Strike happened in 1926 and Germany invaded Poland in 1939. But often they were small and private. In my own family, 1944 wasn’t remembered for D-Day but as ‘the summer we went along the Roman Wall on the tandem’.

When did ‘decade-ism’ – history as wine gums – start? The first decades that took a retrospective grip on the popular imagination were the 1890s and the 1920s. It may not be a coincidence that both have been characterised as fun-loving eras that chucked out staid manners and stale customs, whose social revolutionaries were libertines (Mae West) and gangsters (James Cagney). . . .

If the 1960s had a definable character, why couldn’t the 1970s, the 1980s and the 1990s?

A couple of years back we ran a forum on Stephen Whitfield's "How the Fifties Became the Sixties" in Historically Speaking. (Caveat lector: I had students in my class read the forum, which, I'm afraid, went way over their heads.) Whitfield walked the line between continuity and change and hashed out some of the major issues very well. Commentators who took part--Alice Echols, Terry Anderson, Paul Lyons, David Farber--made some adjustments to Whitfield's remarks and added other insights. Whitfield began his piece with this observation:

In the United States, the first decade and a half or so after the Second World War seemed to lock into place a certain set of conventions—from the broad acceptance of the New Deal to the older ideal of domesticity, from the virtue of the American way of life to its extension to grateful foreigners, from very moderate progress in race relations to moderate reverence for reverence itself. But with extremely few observers quite imagining—much less predicting—what was about to happen, suddenly the Sixties would blindside what nearly all Americans had taken for granted a decade earlier. At first no reversal in the entire span of American history had seemed more dramatic, no transvaluation of values more obvious. With the possible exception of the shift from the Twenties to the Thirties, no contrast seemed to be more striking. But the economic disaster that had become so exigent by the very end of 1929 makes it easier to explain the transformation from the rambunctious self-indulgence typified by Warren G. Harding’s pleasure in going out into the country to “bloviate” to the angst and collectivist fervor of the Great Depression. No such catastrophe can be summoned to explain how the Fifties became the Sixties. When that decade began, the old order hardly seemed to be undergoing a crisis. . . . (read the rest of the lead essay here along with Terry Anderson's comments.)


History Today magazine said...

This is a really interesting debate. It strikes me that there are 3 important issues to address.

Firstly, both the histories of Western European countries and the United States have been similarly categorised into decades. Admittedly, in the 20th century the world became increasingly globalised, however, to what extent can the histories of countries on either side of the Atlantic be subject to the same periodisation?

Secondly, the division of history into decades is a very recent development. As Ian Jack says, the first decade to be characterised is the 1890s. Why have previous centuries not undergone the same categorisation? Would it be possible to characterise them as such?

Lastly, in the same way that it may be slightly inaccurate to apply the same periodisation to the histories of different countries, people within the same country did not have the same experiences of a particular decade. It is easy to periodise history in hindsight, but at the time, not everyone living in the 1920s, for example, would have described the decade as 'fun'. Again, as Ian Jack rightfully points out, there were numerous overlaps and inevitable continuity between decades notably through the coexistence of people from different generations. The problem is that 'the actors and a lot of the scenery date from the previous [decade]'.

We have an interesting article in our archives about the 1890s, a decade which was arguably different to those preceding and following it.
Clive Lee outlines the changes that marked out the 1890s as a frontier post. He also highlights how the economic advance of the 1890s did not extend to all countries.

Randall said...

Thanks for the comments. I'll need to check out the essay on the 1890s. I'm teaching that section of American history at the moment.

Your point about the 1920s not being "fun" for all reminded me of something. My parents spent the 1960s living in Purdy, Missouri, a town about as out of the way as a town can get. There 1960s was anything but the fabulous, jet-setting, libertine era of pop culture lore. In some ways, as for many other evangelicals, their 1960s was like the 1950s all over again.

Purdy on Google Maps:

Bland Whitley said...

I've long been dubious of decadal periodizations (and also discussions of discrete "generations"--I blame both on the baby boomers!) They seem more a product of the efforts of contemporary journalism (good and bad) to make the very recent past more digestible for the average educated reader. They also strike me as a way to pre-empt debate on a given era's characteristics, by effectively branding it--i.e. the fifties were the square decade, and the 60s the wild one. Of course there's some truth to these pictures but not enough to make them terribly useful for historians. But, hell, it's a lot easier to attract students to a class on "The '60s" than to one that muddies the periodization. So I guess that's useful enough.

Lisa Clark Diller said...

I am reminded of my slight gasp of horror when a student in my office casually mentioned that she and her friends were going to have a '90s party that weekend. My superficial reaction was based on the fact that I thought it was entirely too soon to be sentimental--not to mention the obvious conclusion that this 20 year old and her friends could not possibly 'get' what was significant about the 90s. They were too young for OJ and Monica, let alone the disintegration of the USSR and the Balkans War.

I think some of this is the correct response of our professional training. As historians we have our own way of dividing things up. Are we annoyed at the decade-division because it is too 'pop-culture-ish'? It is the easiest way to talk about periods without actually knowing anything about them while as professionals we always have to justify our periodizations. When I find myself falling into some discussion of the personality of a decade, it is almost always because I don't actually know much about that decade. I think we do well to push each other to explain how and what we mean by dividing our periods up in whatever way we are doing so.

And Bland, I'm all for blaming the boomers.