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.)