Luther Spoehr: Review of Mark Hamilton Lytle's, Uncivil Wars: The Sixties Era from Elvis to the Fall of Richard Nixon (OXford University Press, 2005)
Mark Hamilton Lytle graduated from college in 1966, so he's a member of the "first generation" of Sixties scholars, whose reflexive response when questioned by younger critics often echoes Baron von Munchausen: "Vas you dere, Sharley?"
To his credit, Lytle -- now professor of history at Bard College -- doesn't resort to that dodge. But he still seems to think that the Sixties' story is to be found more on the left than the right -- he incorporates relatively little of the"second generation's" findings on, say, the Young Americans for Freedom, but much familiar stuff about SDS.
Nevertheless, although much of the Forrest Gump stereotype of the Sixties remains, and although the book is more descriptive than analytical, Lytle has produced a solid, non-polemical, accessible book about that turbulent era.
It's chronologically comprehensive, too, as can be guessed from the subtitle: Uncivil Wars covers from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s. Lytle breaks those 20 years into three periods --"The Era of Consensus, 1954-63";"The Sixties, 1964-68"; and"The Rise of Essentialist Politics and the Fall of Richard Nixon, 1969-74" -- and devotes about 120 pages to each. His debatable suggestion that the political, social and cultural unrest conventionally associated with"the Sixties" is most appropriately associated with the years between 1964 and 1968 at least reminds us that a tsunami of events ripped through those years.
While 1968 -- which witnessed the Tet Offensive, the Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy assassinations, Mayor Daley versus the Yippies in Chicago, and much else -- has long been remembered as the"hard year," it was especially so because it followed hard on several others. Certainly, 1964 had its own cultural and political earthquakes: the arrival of the Beatles, Freedom Summer and its civil rights murders, the legislative fight over the Civil Rights Law, the Tonkin Gulf incident, and the mud-slinging Johnson-Goldwater election. Lytle effectively recounts all of that, and more.
Unfortunately, this generally positive review must end with a consumer alert. Discriminating readers should wait for a corrected edition, not primarily because of occasional factual slips -- George McGovern was senator from South, not North, Dakota; Estes Kefauver was Adlai Stevenson's running mate in 1956, not 1952 -- but because the number of misspelled proper names exceeds excessive: at least 38 different ones (yes, I counted), many botched repeatedly. Motown's Berry Gordy is"Barry." Marion Barry is"Berry." (Is there a Law of Reciprocity of Vowels?) Walter Cronkite is sometimes"Chronkite." And on, and on. (Memo to Oxfurd Unavursitee Press: if you want, I'll send you the whole list.)
It's embarrassing (or should be) when such slipshod work comes from a publisher bearing the name of an ancient and venerable institution, and downright sad when the sloppiness is so pervasive that it seriously detracts from an otherwise useful book.
Luther Spoehr is teaching"The Campus on Fire: American Colleges and Universities in the 1960s" at Brown University this semester.
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Gary William Shanafelt - 10/3/2005
Spoehr should not be surprised at the number of misspellings and other errors he found in the book. Oxford U.P.seems to have become quite consistent in doing this: I could add several titles from my own field of Central European history. They appear to be trying to save money by not copy editing the manuscripts they accept for publication.
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