Book on the US New Left in the '60s?
July 4, 2007 11:02 AM   Subscribe

Can anyone recommend a good history of the New Left in the US in the 1960s? If possible I'd prefer a broader overview than a narrow focus (e.g. not a book that only deals with the SDS or Port Huron statement).
posted by patricio to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
In a negative review of Mark Kurlansky's 1968, which I really liked, the reviewer says:
The first problem with "1968" is that the book is hardly a focused study on the year 1968 itself, but rather a look at the people and movements that came to the pinnacle of their political prominence in that year. To do this, Kurlansky has to take readers back in time to lay the foundation for these movements, often times retracing the past 50 years of a country's history prior to 1968. While this may help some readers to establish a position of understanding when analyzing the events of 1968, it all seems rather superfluous, the focus of another book, maybe entitled "1957-1967: The Years that Led Up To the Year That Rocked the World."
. . .
Last but not least, there is a problem with the fact that Kurlansky's "1968" really brings nothing to the table that hasn't already been explored in Tariq Ali's "1968: Marching in the Streets" or Chris Harman's "The Fire Last Time" (perhaps the best study of 1968) or any number of other well-researched books that focus on that tumultuous decade known simply as "The Sixties."
Basically, the review says 1968 is pop history, not academic history, maybe implying that these latter books (which I've not read) are more academic.

Here is Paul Berman's top ten books on the American left, a guide at Amazon. Of them, I've skimmed Gitlin's book and thought it would be worth reading, though I haven't yet, and I have read Ellen Willis's Beginning to See the Light and Don't Think, Smile!, both of which engage a lot of the history you ask about in passing, from the point of view of a woman deeply involved in that history as it happened. They're great, great books. (Ellen Willis died last November.)
posted by cgc373 at 11:19 AM on July 4, 2007

The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage by Todd Gitlin is a good place to start if you haven't read it already. It definitely comes from the perspective of being inside the SDS, but he does relate it to the broader issues/movements of the emerging New Left. Caveat: a little too much of the personal memoir for my taste (as one Amazon reviewer says, it gets tiresome hearing about every time Tom Hayden gets a new girlfriend), and personally I think Gitlin is an ass.
posted by scody at 11:34 AM on July 4, 2007

Todd Gitlin (president of the SDS), The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage.

Myra MacPherson Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation, on the Vietnam War and its aftermath in the US is related and highly readable.

Don't ignore the significant influence of the black freed on struggle on the "New Left": Clayborne Carson, In Struggle : SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s.

Or its roots in the Red Diaper babies and the Old Left: Maurice Isserman's If I Had a Hammer...The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left.

If I recall correctly (it's been nearly two decades since I read any of the above), all the above are engaging broad overviews of their subjects.

Isserman's, if I'm remembering can be a bit insanely detailed "who killed Cock Robin" in its coverage of the machinations of the players and competing ideologues in the CPUSA (almost like the profusion of names in Russian novel, ironically), but the Byzantine internal politics of the CPUSA almost becomes fun in its intricacy. Carson's is a bit stridently dry in places, but well worth knowing. MacPherson's is almost lyrical in parts.

Gitlin's is broad but perhaps toward the later part of teh '60s, as the movements expand beyond the Ivy-ish students, Jews, Old Reds, and blacks, with less depth in some areas than you might want; I recall wanting greater detail or more explanation of how the movement mutated as it expanded among the white middle class. Again, this is based on my faulty memory many years after having read these books; I probbaly am mis-remembering a lot.
posted by orthogonality at 11:40 AM on July 4, 2007

I read Gitlin's book in a college American history course and remember liking it a good bit.
posted by wheat at 1:41 PM on July 4, 2007

I liked The Movement and the Sixties a lot. I read it in a course on the Vietnam war and the peace movement, but it covers much, much more than just that.
posted by number9dream at 2:48 PM on July 4, 2007

I liked Max Elbaum's Revolution in the Air.
posted by magnusbe at 5:17 PM on July 4, 2007

Abe Peck's Uncovering the Sixties: The Life and Times of the Underground Press is a well-written, detailed look at the New Left underground media movement by a guy who edited the Chicago Seed and is now a prof at the Medill School of Journalism. And it might be hard to find, but I also really liked Jack Newfield's 1966 book The Prophetic Minority when I read it years ago. I'd give both at least a skim if I was looking for insight into those years.
posted by mediareport at 9:03 PM on July 4, 2007

Though covering many other topics, Howard Zinn's book "A People's History of the United States" deals with this topic...
posted by mateuslee at 12:00 AM on July 5, 2007

For an overview of the philosophical and theoretical preoccupations of the counterculture, don't pass up Theodore Roszak's The Making of a Counter Culture. It changed my life. (and it's a contemporary source from a critical, but engaged, observer)
posted by nasreddin at 8:24 AM on July 5, 2007

I would disagree with Gitlin, second Elbaum, and suggest a visit to
posted by history is a weapon at 7:35 PM on July 5, 2007

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