A large portion of American history is only now being invented. For most periods of that history, we know the broad outlines: For instance, any account of the 1850’s has to include certain themes, certain events and landmarks. However much we differ on our interpretation, every respectable account has to devote some space to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to Dred Scott, to Bleeding Kansas.
Until very recently, though, the period since 1975 or so has not existed in the minds of American historians on anything like the same terms, and that absence demands explanation. It is not just that the events are too fresh to be recollected in tranquility. One of the best accounts of the 1920’s is still Frederick Lewis Allen’s classic Only Yesterday, written as early as 1931, while major books on the McCarthy saga or the Civil Rights Movement were appearing within a few years of those events. More importantly, these interpretations were incorporated into the mainstream story. In contrast, the years since Watergate and the end of the Vietnam War remain alien territory in many universities, while the textbooks treat this era with great diffidence, if at all. At the university where I teach, American history is divided into a series of obvious periods (e.g., 1877-1917, 1917-1941), but one—constantly expanding—course covers the increasingly amorphous period “America Since 1945.”
So why are we missing roughly one eighth of the history of the United States? Much of the answer is ideological, in that most academic historians froze in the political mind-set of the McGovern era. This observation applies with special force to those professors and graduate students who, though not even born at that time, remain resolutely opposed to the Nixon presidency and to the war in Southeast Asia. People clinging to that political worldview find it difficult to move on into an era to which they are utterly unsympathetic, an age of sweeping conservative victories at home and abroad, the triumph of Reaganism, the collapse of Soviet communism, and the discrediting of most of the social and sexual assumptions of the 1960’s.
If we all pretend that nothing has happened since 1974, then nothing will disturb the consensus delusion. As a result, many of the studies that have appeared on the 70’s and 80’s focus on pop-culture trivia (leisure suits, roller disco) rather than the deeply sensitive trends in the political world (where the left got proved wrong on virtually everything). Only in the past few years has the volume and quality of historical writing on the post-1974 era (by, among others, David Farber, Steven F. Hayward, Mark Lytle, James T. Patterson, and Bruce J. Schulman) reached the point where it can no longer be ignored.
Jeremy Black’s Altered States represents a bold attempt to map the terrain of an as-yet-unnamed historical period. He succeeds admirably and manages to be sane and even-handed even on the most controversial topics. Originally an English military historian, Black is very fair in assessing the present President Bush, offering a balanced and reasonable critique that is guaranteed to offend the millions of liberals who feel that Dubya would be the Antichrist, had he not failed the IQ test. Black, in fact, sets a high standard by which future surveys of the modern era can usefully be judged.
The arrangement of materials in Altered States works well—strikingly so, given the danger of such a book collapsing easily under the sheer weight of available topics. Black begins with geographical and ecological factors, a prelude reflecting that the United States is “a continent pretending to be a country.” European commentators often neglect the sheer scale of the United States, as they fail to realize how many times over their own countries could be dropped into Oregon or Arizona and still have plenty of space left over for national parks. Apart from its intrinsic interest, the fact of size has many implications for social, cultural, and political matters in a society characterized throughout by mobility and internal migration. I think every page of Black’s book has at least one striking observation or aperçu, especially in these opening sections: Its discussions of wildlife, ecology, and climate are all innovative and rewarding.
Having painted his landscape, Black proceeds to populate it, turning to matters of family, migration, and demography in the last advanced country on the planet to maintain replacement levels of fertility. (While I would never accuse her of being an advanced country, even Iran now has a fertility rate below that of the United States.) Here, as elsewhere, Black makes excellent use of pop-culture illustrations, drawn from novels as well as from a wide variety of films, television shows, and music. Only in the final portion of the book does he turn to political events, to parties and elections, his accounts of which benefit enormously from the foundations laid by the previous discussions of cultural and demographic realities.
While Altered States has so much to recommend it, Black is especially good on the historical debates that have so often represented the most ferocious combat zones in the culture wars: the struggles to define the national past and, thereby, to reshape both present and future. He devotes 11 pages to “Contesting the Past,” a generous allocation in a book of just 240 pages total, but one that is fully justified by Black’s coverage of the controversy over the National History Standards and the World War II Memorial, as well as the various debates over black history, women’s history, and other subfields.
Books such as Altered States should encourage academics and teachers to venture into the wastelands of the 1980’s and beyond, regions that, on contemporary maps, bear only the vague label “Here There Be Reactionaries.” When they do decide to light out for these territories, they will find a range of characters, issues, and controversies as powerful as any in the nation’s previous history. Perhaps, after all, there is life after Watergate.
[Altered States: America Since the Sixties, by Jeremy Black (London: Reaktion Books) 256 pp., $19.95]