From a historical perspective, the nineteen-sixties were a time of major change in American society and politics, and much of what happened shaped the country as it is today. Not surprisingly, much has been written by historians on these topics, but two books stand out in particular. Godfrey Hodgson’s America in Our Time (1976, 2004) describes the period as one in which the optimism of the liberal consensus, which had dominated intellectual and political life in the nineteen-fifties, vanished. Isserman and Kazin portray the same period in America Divided (1999) as a time of conflict between various segments of society, perhaps even more divisive than the Civil War in the long term. This can in part be attributed to the collapse of consensus and fragmentation described by Hodgson, who opens with an account of developments in the nineteen-forties and fifties that gave rise to the consensus. Taken together, these books give a fairly comprehensive overview of the image that formed of the nineteen-sixties after the fact. America Divided is valuable for the more long-term perspective it offers, with an epilogue that examines some of the larger legacies of the period. America in Our Time on the other hand offers a detailed account of the rise and fall of the liberal consensus, but the afterword to the 2005 edition also adds a broader historical perspective. Here, Hodgson highlights the rise of a new conservatism, which was partly due to the collapse of the consensus.
A tumultuous decade
The main narrative that follows from these two books is that the nineteen-sixties were a time of great tension as the initial optimism that followed the Second World War faded and made way for the harsh reality of a politically and morally divided society. Hodgson’s main argument is that the Left had lost influence by the nineteen-fifties, as a result of which right-oriented liberals dominated the political scene, with most influential politicians holding optimistic views based on their position after the Second World War and sharing a determination to protect their country from communism. This optimism in the good of United States collapsed in a crisis of spirit precisely because that promise was flawed from the beginning and many liberal assumptions were fundamentally wrong. Isserman and Kazin pay less attention to this ideological situation, but it is clear that their description of events can be linked to this development. Whatever the exact causes of the conflicts that defined American society throughout the nineteen-sixties, two main areas of confrontation were the struggle for civil rights and the Vietnam War. On the one hand, minority groups began to fight for greater equally, especially African Americans in the early nineteen-sixties. On the other hand, the United States was involved in a costly war in South East Asia that became increasingly unpopular and led to great protest. Not surprisingly, both of these issues bled over into the 1968 presidential election, as generations clashed over where politicians should stand on these issues, and what the president’s role should be in contemporary American society.
The nineteen-sixties were therefore a period of major change and 1968 was a year in which many of these developments came together or reached climaxes of their own. It is characterized by Isserman and Kazin as “the pivot of the American decade” (221), indicating its central importance. Although Hodgson is less explicit about it, he also continuously refers to 1968, along with 1963 and 1965, as an important turning point, essentially marking the start of a new period that is less strongly influenced by the liberal consensus. The year 1968 therefore was a defining moment in most of the ongoing developments of the nineteen-sixties as liberal control of the presidency ended, public opinion on Vietnam changed and the peaceful civil rights movement came to a symbolic end with the death of Martin Luther King. The way that several developments came together in this way was to have lasting consequences.
These accounts provide an important historical perspective, but leave open a vital question: what did people at the time itself think? It is important to consider whether they perhaps saw different developments, framed issues in a different way because of their historical standpoint, or identified other events as important. That is why 1968 is especially interesting to focus on, since it is not to be taken for granted that they already felt it to be such a momentous year. One way to find out about these contemporary views is to look at what literary authors and critics at the time wrote about these issues.