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The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief
Basic Books, 2014
264 pp., $40.00
Wilfred M. McClay
The Case of the Missing Consensus
George Marsden's latest book has about it the deceptive simplicity of a master at work. Which is another way of saying that it weaves together the familiar and the unfamiliar in a supple and plausible narrative, and with seemingly effortless momentum deposits its readers in territory they would not have thought to visit at the outset of the journey. Some readers may have a "here we go again" feeling at the outset, for the book covers oft-trod ground: the movement from unity to fragmentation, if not unraveling, of American culture in the decades since World War II, with many all-too-familiar signposts along the way. But Marsden tells it in a fresh and compelling way, with emphases that are anything but commonplace in American historiography. He grounds his argument in epochal shifts in the deep structure of ideas and culturally shared assumptions, choosing (as his subtitle implies) to regard the 1950s, rather than the 1960s, as the genuinely pivotal decade in this story. And that is not all. He forces us to consider the current movement toward fracture in light of larger and longer currents in American history, currents going back to the Founding, and beyond that to the modern Enlightenment itself. And finally he concludes with some tentative but thoughtful recommendations for the American future. Quite a lot to accomplish in under 200 sprightly and compulsively readable pages.
In order to start with the Fifties, Marsden has had to reinterpret them, and that effort alone makes a useful contribution. There has been a growing recognition that the standard historical fable of the stolid, repressive, and complacent Fifties giving way to the energetic, open, and socially revolutionary Sixties has a great deal wrong with it. As the late Alan Petigny showed in his book The Permissive Society: America, 1941-1965, nearly every cultural and intellectual trend that we associate with the Sixties had already taken root in the previous decade; one could argue that the revolutionaries ...