William Strauss: Historian dies after long struggle with cancer

Historians in the News

A great historian died last Tuesday in McLean, Virginia, after an eight-year battle with pancreatic cancer, at the age of 60. Bill Strauss was both a college classmate of mine (although I did not meet him until our 25th reunion) and for some years a close friend. I have already expressed many personal feelings about his death on www.fourthturning.com, the web site he and his collaborator Neil Howe created in 1997, and on my own historyunfolding.com. Today I want to talk about their work and, sadly, what it tells me about the state of the historical profession.

Strauss and Howe wrote two major works of American history: Generations, The History of America’s Future(1991) and The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy (1996). I reviewed the latter book for the Boston Globe and posted the review yesterday on historyunfolding.com. As they explained to me many years ago, when they began Generations, they simply wanted to identify the various generations in American history and talk about their contributions to American life. In the midst of their research, however, they had an extraordinary epiphany. It began, Bill once told me, when they noticed the similarity between two sets of the generations to which they were giving names: the Republicans (Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, Marshall), Compromisers (Clay, Webster, Buchanan) and Transcendentals (Garrison, Jefferson Davis, Sumner and Lincoln), on the one hand, and the GIs (JFK, Nixon, Reagan), Silents (John McCain, Colin Powell, Michael Dukakis) and Boomers (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Grover Norquist) on the other. Pursuing that lead, they discovered, and elaborated, a recurring 80-year pattern of generations and eras in American history. (My review, linked above, summarizes it.) More importantly, they predicted, first in Generations and more definitely in The Fourth Turning, that the United States would by 2010 or so at the latest find itself in the midst of a national crisis comparable to the civil war or the Great Depression and Second World War. Influenced by them, I repeated that warning at the end of my own American Tragedy, published in early 2000, and virtually everything that has happened since has confirmed, to me, that they were right.

In my opinion, those books were the most truly original and valuable historical works produced by the Boom generation (born 1943-1960 according to their definition, which is based on life experience rather than simple demographics.) Only amateurs, I am sorry to say, could have written it. Strauss had a law degree and a masters in public policy (and was also a founder of the comedy troop the Capitol Steps), and Howe had (perhaps wisely) quit graduate school before finishing his dissertation. They read widely to write their books, but were not deterred, as almost any professional would be, by the enormity of what they were trying to do. Their analyses are often impressionistic, and, like most Boomers, they could be quite dogmatic. They insisted on strict chronological boundaries between generations, and I have always felt that some of those boundaries were probably wrong. These are the kinds of rough edges that could eventually be smoothed out by more research and analysis, and they do not, for me, detract from the brilliance of their achievement. When I started reading Generations I disagreed with many things, but I was too excited to get a good night’s sleep for the better part of a week. Their books changed the way I viewed the world, and history, permanently, and many things that had puzzled me suddenly became clear.

Their reception both in the mainstream media and in academia has been disappointing. My own review was, I think, the only one they ever got that really understood what they were doing. Meanwhile, only two professional historians, as far as I know, have ever discussed their work at all. One is David Krein, an historian of 19th-century Britain, now retired, who wrote a fine article in The Journal of the Historical Society showing quantitatively that generational difference was a better predictor of voting behavior than party difference in the House of Commons during the 1840s. The other, of course, is myself. Strauss and Howe’s analysis of the GI (or “greatest”) generation found its way into American Tragedy, and helped explain a great deal about the way in which the veterans of the Second World War had assumed that they could replay it in Southeast Asia in the midst of a completely different era. More recently, I published an article in the journal the Monist, “Neither Marxist nor Whig: The Great Atlantic Crises, 1774-1962,” which showed how the theory could be applied across the whole Atlantic world, and not merely to the United States, with very striking results.

I have also found the theory to be a very powerful teaching tool. In 1998 I started an elective, “Generations in Film,” at the Naval War College, using movies, as well as one of their books, to look at the differences among generations in various different contexts from the 1930s to the present. It has been a consistent hit, and two alumni have arranged for me to speak about it elsewhere subsequently. Last year, as a visiting professor at Williams College, I got to try the course there, and the results were extraordinarily gratifying. Students love it because it allows them to place their generational archetype (Strauss and Howe identified four recurring ones) within other periods of history, and to understand more about the differences between them and their parents and grandparents. Unfortunately, it seems quite likely that that will be the only time such a course is given at an American college or university.

I also tried, and eventually succeeded, in convening a conference panel on the subject. I originally proposed it to the AHA in, I believe, 1998. Between them the four panelists (including Strauss and Howe) had written about 15 books, but the AHA refused the panel, claiming paradoxically that it was striving for a variety of topics. That was the last straw in my long and difficult relationship with that body, and I quit. But the Historical Association did host the panel in 2004, and it was quite successful. (Neil Howe presented a paper along with David Krein and myself, and Anne Rose commented. Bill Strauss was getting over a cancer treatment and could not make it.)

The Strauss-Howe books are, in my opinion, a sad commentary on the state of the historical profession—because no professional would ever even have attempted them. It would be difficult indeed to find a working professional historian with the kind of knowledge they showed of the whole sweep of American history going back to colonial times, and it would be impossible to find one, I think, who would dare to look for, and succeed in finding, the 80-year pattern. Professional historians are trained to lock themselves within narrow specialties, and those who break those rules pay a heavy price. I, like Strauss and Howe, have always felt that some historians should try to use the information that accumulates year after year in monographs to draw more profound conclusions. When in 1977—after my first year of teaching—I made that argument in a departmental retreat, a senior faculty member asked me if we should return to the days of “Frisky Merriman” at Harvard, who concluded his western civilization course by holding out his watch chain, letting the watch swing like a pendulum, and explaining that it represented the regular alternation of liberty and authority. That of course got a laugh, but I commented to another junior faculty member at a break that in my opinion, accumulated research should indeed allow us to do what Merriman did—only better. I eventually tried to do just that in Politics and War: European Conflict from Philip II to Hitler—a book that immediately became a main selection of the History Book Club, but which my fellow professionals have almost completely ignored. Yet I am not sorry to have spent the better part of a decade uncovering four different patterns of European conflict extending across four centuries of history. As Strauss and Howe also proved, broader patterns are there to be discovered if we take the time and show the enterprise to look for them.

Strauss and Howe discovered that their ideas have considerable resonance in the business and political worlds, where dollars and votes can depend on a proper understanding of different generations. Al Gore read Generations and I feel pretty sure that Karl Rove looked at The Fourth Turning at some point or another. A few secondary school teachers also use their ideas, and a few hundred amateurs debate them on the web site they established. My article in The Monist shows how they could be used to teach the modern history of the Atlantic World. I do not, however, see how their ideas will ever catch on at all widely in contemporary academia, where professionalization and ideology have left no room for truly original and far-ranging thought. My thanks go out to them, not only for letting me see the world and its history in a new way, but for proving that such work can still be done. Younger generations, I am sure, will read them with pleasure and profit in years to come.

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