In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Islands in Time, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Decade
  • Bruce J. Schulman (bio)

A bobbed-haired flapper dances across the ballroom floor, cigarette dangling scandalously from her lips; a family of gaunt, hollow-eyed Okies pilot a beatup sedan, their tattered belongings tied to the roof; a long-haired, tie-dyed flock vibrate on the San Francisco panhandle as the Grateful Dead play in the background; angry motorists wait in line for rationed gasoline. For students of modern U.S. History, these images immediately conjure distinctive decades of the twentieth century. The almost-automatic association of those scenes with the Twenties, Thirties, Sixties, and Seventies signals the influence of the decade in the popular historical imagination. For nearly a century now, Americans have reckoned their history in ten-year-long blocks, constructing islands in time, each with its own distinctive atmosphere, its signature cultural artifacts, its peculiar meaning.

While many have made their peace with this trend, professional historians have mainly bristled at the baleful influence of such arbitrary markers. In his 2017 cri di coeur for the journal Modern American History, Christopher Capozzola named as the field's most urgent task the "revolt against the tyrannical oppression of the decade, easily the least helpful concept in the toolkit of modern American historians."1 Much as Marc Bloch derided the "insidious" tendency to demarcate European history as a pendulum-swinging progression of centuries, historians have assailed chroniclers of the twentieth century United States for setting aside "experience-oriented chronological markers"—wars, epidemics, depressions, revolutions and the other real stuff of history—in favor of the decimal system.2 "We merrily tick off decades," Warren Susman complained, "give them tricky names, and assume that that is what history is all about."3

Worse still, the tyranny of the decade distorts the historical record. It stresses evanescent, short-term trends, exaggerates change, and, in Susman's indictment, leaves "no room in American scholarship for Fernand Braudel's vision of extended time."4 Such unhealthy attachment to years that end with zero, what Bloch famously labeled "these faces in arithmetical masks," not [End Page 322] only compresses the scale of American historical development, emphasizing transient fads and presidential elections over long-term demographic patterns and durable policy regimes, it also privileges particular brands of history and relies on a vague conception of mass culture: a set of collective public experiences, widely shared through and structured by mass media and mass consumption.5 And while a few recent studies have investigated decades as transnational phenomena, the prevalent association of decades with the detritus of American popular culture also obscures the global dimensions of many seemingly peculiar domestic developments.6

"Decade-ism" has occasioned so much scorn that even Saturday Night Live satirized it. In a December 1979 episode, "Weekend Update's Social Sciences Editor" Al Franken bade good riddance to the solipsistic "Me Decade" and predicted the arrival of the "Al Franken Decade." "Why that?" the comedian asked. "Well, because I thought of it, and I'm on TV, so I've already gotten the jump on you. So, I say let's leave behind the fragmented, selfish '70s, and go into the '80s with a unity and purpose." You can almost see scholarly critics of the decade smiling in agreement at the absurdity of the practice.7

The decade, then, offers critics an easy target. Still, Susman and Capozzola's jabs hardly constitute knockout blows. A peculiarly modern, pre-eminently American invention, the decade remains standing, especially for scholars of twentieth-century U.S. History. It has spawned and continues to nurture a distinctive genre of historical analysis—the decade book—and its holistic approach offers useful correctives to the balkanization of historical subfields. Dismissing the decade as artificial and distorting ignores the concept's peculiar history and the genre's distinctive contributions.

Inventing the Decade: Frederick Lewis Allen and the 1920s

In 1931, Frederick Lewis Allen, a true scion of the American Establishment, concocted the decade book. Allen, then Associate Editor of Harper's Magazine, not only created an enduring genre of American historical literature, he pretty much invented the decade as contemporaries now imagine and use...