Limitations to this approach
Looking back on this project, advantages and disadvantages become apparent and we get a clearer image of what the relation between historiography and literature can be, as I initially set out to do. Most importantly, these types of texts clearly offer crucial new insights, yet they cannot replace the historical texts that we have. At the same time, however, historiography may not always be able to take into account everything that was written during a certain period. Most importantly, these personal accounts miss the kind of critical distance and retrospect that historians can offer, even if literary critics were in some cases prescient about what was likely to happen. Still, they could obviously not know for sure what was going to happen, in which the main issue with the nineteen-sixties is the rise of conservatism that started around this time, but would only grow in importance over the following decade, leading up to the Reagan administration.
The same is true for the consequences of certain developments, such as the aftermath of the war in Vietnam and the effect the feelings that people at the time had would have on the ways in which they viewed the United States, leading to something like the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ in fighting other wars. Although connected to what people were saying and thinking at the time, these are not the questions they were or could be concerned with. Furthermore, as first-person testimonials, the influence of personal feelings is also discernible, for example, in Baldwin’s account of Martin Luther King, or Cleaver’s description of the Black Panthers. This is what makes literature so interesting because it is not just about facts, but also about emotions.
The role of historiography
This lack of objectivity is not necessarily bad and helps to really understand how people felt, but it does show that there is a role for the historian here in putting all of these pieces together and creating a synthesis of the available material. Some of the issues raised in the discussion questions reveal that the texts cannot always stand on their own, but need to be supplemented by other sources and perspectives. For example, the racial dimension to the war in Vietnam alone is insufficient to explain why the war happened, or why it lasted as long as it did. To understand those more direct causes, the geopolitical perspective that historians have offered is important. Similarly, debates around the civil rights movement were complicated and benefit from a more generalized description that divides groups categorically, even if this loses certain nuances, in order to present a more coherent narrative. This does not make the literary accounts from that time any less valuable however.
On the contrary, it is questionable whether historians have really taken note of such accounts, because as is clear they can still offer striking new insights. Historians should therefore not only rely on historical documents from that time, but especially consider literary voices as well, especially the type of texts by literary authors in which fiction intersects with non-fiction, offering more extensive insight into the sentiments of the time. This was a fairly new development at the time, embodied by concepts like new journalism and gonzo writing. Similarly, the nineteen-sixties were also an important period because it was around this time that literary authors and critics began to get more directly involved and engaged explicitly with politics in their writing, something that was quite new, after the emphatically non-political 1950s. The real question then should be not which of the two is better, but rather whether historians have taken adequate note of fictional accounts like these.
What can we learn about the nineteen-sixties and 1968?
As far as this specific period in American history is concerned, some comments need to be made as well. Even if some events and developments only truly make sense in hindsight, other developments have been deemed influential precisely because people at the time took notice. Taking a step back from these specific events and developments, perhaps the crucial observation to be made here is that at that time, people were also asking fundamental questions about the United States, its history, and what it meant to be American. What is really interesting is not so much how they felt specifically, but rather the very fact that they were asking these kinds of questions about ongoing developments and were already engaging with the deeper meanings for the country. It is also interesting to see how their questions and criticism compare to that in other periods, although the precise answers to that fall beyond the scope of this project.
What is interesting to note however is that two important ‘historical’ assumptions are borne out by these authors. On the one hand, the nineteen-sixties were a momentous decade, characterized by great unrest in society, reflected in the unease that Americans felt at the time. On the other hand, 1968 was also a very important year, perhaps even more so because events like the police brutality during the Democratic Convention and the Martin Luther King assassination were even more shocking when they first happened. The main difference here might be that people felt it was a turning point not necessarily because they could see that that was the case then, as they had no way of knowing what would come after. Rather, they were so impressed by the events of that year because they felt momentous, and in some cases were. A tendency to consider the time you are living in as tremendous is therefore visible, but one that is confirmed by the historical accounts. Most importantly, literature gives a good impression of what people at the time were feeling and thus an important indicator of what was happening in society.
Away from singular narratives
In all of this, it is especially important to consider authors that were not from a white middle-class background, as those are the groups that are most often misrepresented or left out of traditional history-telling. This criticism has been heard especially from Indigenous people, including Deloria, but the same is true for African Americans, women, and really any other minority. Taking history away from simplified white middle-class accounts and incorporating accounts from these crucial sources is a good way to go against this. It not only restores their place in the historical narratives, but can also help to raise understanding of larger problems with race in the United States that are too often neglected, in this case with the way people from ethnic minority backgrounds viewed Vietnam and the civil rights movement.