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James T. Patterson's Grand Expectations: A 10-Year Retrospective Appreciation and Critical ReviewTim Lacy

James T. Patterson. Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Pp. 880. ISBN: 0195117972

A decade ago James T. Patterson's Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974 won the prestigious Bancroft Prize. Awarded by Columbia University beginning in 1948, the Bancroft goes to two "distinguished works" in American history and diplomacy published the prior year. Patterson's award partner was David Kyvig for his work, Explicit and Authentic Acts: Amending the U.S. Constitution, 1776-1995. [1]

Aside from the Bancroft, what makes Patterson's work worthy of a retrospective? There are several reasons for such an endeavor. First, he continued the work of Grand Expectations with Restless Giant: The United States from Watergate to Bush v. Gore (2005, Oxford). Both are part of Oxford University Press's acclaimed "History of the United States" series. To fully understand Restless Giant, one must have a strong feel for the argument and topics in Grand Expectations. With both works, one possesses a voluminous, comprehensive, and synthetic survey of the entire second half of twentieth-century U.S. history. That is no small accomplishment.

Grand Expectations is also worthy of reflection for its sheer audacity. Coming in at nearly 850 pages, counting front and back matter, the hefty tome challenges not only one's ability to intake an endless string of facts, but also one's courage as a reader. I started it because I have proclivity for, and appreciation of, all great and grand projects. Having tackled Britannica's Great Books of the Western World as both a reader (not finished) and as a dissertation topic (finished), I clearly enjoy scaling literary and historical mountains. [2]

Finally, in light of the Bancroft it is perhaps to be expected that Patterson's contemporary reviewers universally praised Grand Expectations. The New York Times' David Oshinsky reviewed the book quite early. He labeled it a "learned book," and "a spirited, sprawling narrative" that was "both grumpy and shrewd." In the months and first year or so after its release, history professionals also praised Patterson's work. Charles Alexander, a reviewer for The Journal of American History, called it "thoughtful," "gracefully written," "judicious," and "the finest general history so far on the postwar United States." In cultural historian Elaine Tyler May's analysis, Grand Expectations served as an "exhaustive and encyclopedic synthesis" of the period. The Journal of Economic History's Brian Balogh wrote that the book was "masterful." Two years after publication, Mark Byrnes of Davidson College opined: "Patterson . . . has given us a thorough, interesting, well-written, and useful chronicle." [3] I don't want to imply that these reviewers found nothing about which to quibble, but by and large they believed Grand Expectations to be one of the better, if not the best, survey text on the period.

Finishing Patterson's book proved a monumental task. I first began Grand Expectations in June 2006, and continued the quest on bus and train rides around Chicago, family vacations, lunch breaks, and quiet weekend afternoons. I read other books along the way, but even after more than six months I was only two-thirds done. My expectations for completion were often revised. I finally finished in January 2007. When I began the book, Barack Obama was still just a junior senator from Illinois learning the ropes of the office; on completion he was a presidential candidate vying only with Hillary Clinton in national popularity among Democrats.

But after such an arduous climb, what does the summit look like? Was it worth the strained eyes, coffee jitters, and my book bag's strap digging into my shoulder? For the lay student of history, Patterson's work provides clear narrative and analysis of the administrations of Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. Grand Expectations deals with the context of reception, successes, and failures of each president's domestic and international policies. That context also consists of cultural and social conditions, as well as some study of the international environments at which those policies aimed. All of the essentials from 1945 to 1974 are covered as well as can be expected in any survey work: the Cold War, Korean War, McCarthyism, Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis, Civil Rights Movement, Great Society, Vietnam War, war protests, 1968 Democratic Convention, and Watergate. Patterson gives the readers glimpses of people such as A. Philip Randolph, Betty Friedan, Walter Reuther, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Rachel Carson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Tom Hayden, Barry Goldwater, Stokely Carmichael, Richard M. Daley, the Chicago Seven, Robert Kennedy, and Daniel Ellsberg. As May wrote in her review, "Students born too late to remember these years will find this book to be a vivid account." [4] Include me among those students of history.

Those with a mid-level concern for sources and scholarship, once called debonair amateurs by John Erskine, will also find reasonable satisfaction with Patterson. Grand Expectations footnotes almost every survey and specialized study, on each decade and topic, available at the time of publication (1996). The book's sources are primarily other history books and articles, with the occasional primary resource tossed into the mix. Those latter, first-hand materials primarily arise from magazine and New York Times articles. Sometimes, however, those sources gained citation because of their retrospective nature. At the book's end, a small-print bibliographic essay ties together the secondary sources by theme and topic. This and the footnotes make Grand Expectations invaluable as a starting point for further digging and reading. The span of Patterson's reach makes most criticism of his source synthesis simply spurious.

But what's in Grand Expectations for those with the highest expectations, including intellectuals, deeply critical readers, and philosophers of history (professional or otherwise)? To me the only fair topics for that crowd to criticize are the book's overall argument and arrangement. For the latter, Patterson proceeded chronologically: a solid, sensible, and traditional — if not strictly required — method for historians. Traveling by time allows Patterson to build toward two natural crescendos, the raucous events of 1968 (chapter 22 of 25) and the national disaster that was Watergate (chapter 25). Since Patterson followed a time-tested tradition with this arrangement, we must turn toward his unifying thesis.

What was Grand Expectations' overall argument? In his words, the composite feeling in the U.S., beginning in 1945 and extending all through the book's timeframe, was comprised of "grand expectations," an "optimistic mood," and the prospect of "future promise" (p. 8-9). That feeling sets the tone for Patterson's entire tome. While those phrases point to the book's overall argument, a more thorough explanation arrives at the conclusion of a chapter (three) on 1950s "booms."

Here Patterson finds much to admire in Landon Jones Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation (1980). With Jones, Patterson plants the seeds of explanation in young parents, the so-called "Silent Generation," who began bearing children in the demographic Baby Boom. Patterson reflected: "Not only veterans but also their younger brothers and sisters maturing in the next few years developed rising aspirations amid the increasingly prosperous economic climate. . . . Most of them knew that they were better off . . . than their parents had been at their age. They [the young] sensed that they could afford to marry, buy a house, start a family, and educate their children. In this way as in so many others, the health of the economy — as well as the optimistic perceptions of continuing prosperity — drove social change in postwar America" (p. 79, italics mine). Patterson fairly noted that "early 'baby boomers' had very different life experiences from later ones," but nevertheless argued that "the baby boom symbolized a broader 'boom' mentality of many younger Americans, especially whites and the ever-larger numbers of people moving upward into the middle classes. They were developing expectations that grew grander and grander over time" (p. 79-80). These quotes foreshadow how a number of ideas and phrases will dominate the rest of the text: 'abundance,' 'liberal optimism,' 'aspirations,' 'entitlements,' and 'rights consciousness.'

Grand Expectations at once succeeds and fails because of its core argument. In the first half of the book the thesis is quite convincing, and the chief message acquits itself well as an organizing principle. The book achieves it goals when covering the immediate post-war period, economic affluence, consumerism, and the more flamboyant excesses of some 1960s youth. Patterson's argument succeeds when talking about the ever more important "quest for satisfactory personal lives" that increasingly defined the 1950s and 1960s (p. 37). As noted above, the work adequately explains how increasing affluence and a "buoyant economy" helped foster social and legal expectations, but undermined any sort of radical change due to an unwillingness to rock the boat of consumer prosperity (p. 60). It is chapter three that cogently makes the case for affluence being a legitimate source of raised expectations.

By the time the reader hits chapter eleven, Patterson has really hit his stride within the sub-theme of affluence: "The whole world, many Americans seemed to think by 1957, was turning itself over to please the special, God-graced generation — and its children — that had triumphed over depression and fascism, . . . and that was destined to live happily ever after . . . in a fairy tale of health, wealth, and happiness." The cynicism inherent in the expectations argument allows Patterson to view the 1950s with jaundiced, non-nostalgic eye. The conspiracy of happiness is driven by high incomes, entertainment diversions (film, music, and television), mass consumer culture, medical advances, labor union successes, voluntary religious conformity, a decline in ethnic consciousness, and suburban contentment. The focus on affluence therefore explains the invisibility of the darker side of the 1950s: women's unhappiness, warnings of problems by intellectuals, continued segregation, and poverty. With these topics and in this period, Patterson's 'expectations thesis' is thoroughly convincing.

But Patterson's argument, as noted above, also weakens considerably because of the focus on 'expectations.' The delineation occurs in Grand Expectations' second half, ominously beginning with chapter thirteen and continuing into the topics of the 1960s. The glibness with which the term 'expectations' treats some men, women, movements, and ideas contributes — as the book progresses — to a nagging sense of "But what about [X]". This persistently bothersome feeling arises not because of any survey-oriented failure of Grand Expectations to cover a topic, but rather in explaining the topics at hand — the 'why' of the book.

For instance, to subsume the equal rights aspirations of women, African Americans, Hispanics, the disabled, the elderly, and teenagers to an idea like 'expectations' is not sufficiently analytical. While discussing African American activism in the post-World War II social environment, Patterson is left saying of that racial group on the eve of the Brown v. Board decision in 1954: "Like whites, they were rapidly developing grander expectations" (p. 385). This overly simplistic simile denigrates the social realities confronting African Americans. Moreover, the term 'expectation,' with its easy emotional connotations of "looking forward to" and "anticipation," as well as political references to "entitlement" and "rights consciousness," contains an illegitimate vagary with regard to whether some social demand were really and truly just. The reader is left feeling that the raised expectations of the downtrodden were merely shallow, filled with immature demanding.

What of Martin Luther King's critique of mainstream white Protestantism's inactivity, as is evident in his famous 1963 letter from Birmingham Jail? If Grand Expectations' thesis is strictly followed, is not the reader tempted to dismiss King's cri de coeur as his and cohort's problem with raised expectations? By the time the urban race riots of 1966 and 1967 come around, the explanations offered in Grand Expectations for those events are muddled. To wit, Patterson wrote: "Most of the blacks who took part in the riots . . . apparently did not expect much in the way of tangible results. Fired up by conflicts with police, they started disturbances that exploded suddenly, raged out of control, and then stopped before participants could develop much of a program. Rather, the rioters rampaged so as to express themselves against long-simmering injustices and to be noticed, at last" (p. 666). So, did African-American rioters not expect much and only want to vent, or did they hope for a tangible program and desire to express themselves due to injustice? Or, did they simply want to be noticed? Because the term 'expectations' doesn't work, everything but the kitchen sink is thrown into the passage.

The word 'expectations' does not give Patterson sufficient room, in the context of a survey text, to deal more deeply with even 'white' intellectual social concerns that came to fruition in the 1960s. When the writings of Hayden, Paul Goodman, and C. Wright Mills fueled white, middle-class student activism and resistance to the so-called "Establishment," Grand Expectations can only explain their inspiration by attributing it to monetary means and flights of fancy. Patterson wrote that, due to "astonishing affluence," youth "came to believe that they had the knowledge and the resources to create a . . . society like none before in human history. . . . Their brimming, 'can-do' certitude stimulated grand expectations about the capacity of government to solve social problems. Even more than in the 1950s, it seemed that there were no limits" (p. 451-2, 623). The Beats of that earlier decade received respect for rejecting "the excesses of materialism, conformity, and the consumer culture," but those who received inspiration in the 1960s from them and the abovementioned intellectuals are dismissed (p. 410). The young were basically over-caffeinated. They were filled with a sense of entitlement, not any realistic visions of a better country or a more inclusive, participatory democracy. Because their age and affluence, their 'expectations' come across as illegitimate.

In the end, simply subsuming all calls for change — whether derived from a group's color, age, gender, or class — to raised 'expectations' perpetuates the injustices those various movements sought to combat. As Mark Byrnes noted in his review, "optimism is only part of the picture." [5] The book's thesis, as it applies to the last chronological half of the book, unfortunately becomes another reactionary, moderately conservative backlash take on the events of the 1960s. In avoiding the issues of 'just expectations' and 'social justice,' which would have served as better, related threads for the book's second half, Grand Expectations ultimately fails as a unifying thesis. By attempting to avoid potentially polarizing moral judgments, the work loses its interpretative power. Without interjecting real questions of right and wrong, with Watergate are we to be left thinking that Nixon merely failed to meet the expectations of the American people?

The ambiguity surrounding Patterson's paradox of expectations, along with Grand Expectations' synthetic, integrative nature will keep the work relevant to future lay readers, those with mid-level scholarly expectations, and debonair amateurs. But those concerned with argument, a sound philosophy of history, and equally respective treatment of all subjects in the book's twenty-nine year period, are advised to handle Patterson's work with care. A deeper analytical and philosophical framework, preferably one based on the question of justice, is needed to adequately connect the period extending from 1945 to Watergate.

Tim Lacy is an independent scholar and a student advisor in the Pre-Health Professions Office at Loyola University.


[1] "The Bancroft Prizes: Description and Guidelines," Columbia University Library. Available online at http://www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb/eguides/amerihist/bancroft.html. Accessed January 24, 2007. All subsequent references to Patterson's work come from Oxford University Press paperback (a 1997 reprint of the 1996 hardback).

[2] My dissertation was titled, "Making a Democratic Culture: The Great Books Idea, Mortimer J. Adler, and Twentieth-Century America" (Loyola University Chicago, 2006).

[3] David Oshinsky, "Flush With Success," New York Times, June 30, 1996, BR13; Charles C. Alexander, review of Grand Expectations, in The Journal of American History 83, no. 4 (March 1997): 1479; Brian Balogh, review of Grand Expectations, in The Journal of Economic History 57, no. 2 (June 1997): 562-4; Elaine Tyler May, review of Grand Expectations, in American Historical Review 102, no. 4 (October 1997): 1261-2; Mark Byrnes, review of Grand Expectations, H-Net Discussion Networks, H-Survey (May 1998); available at http://h-net.msu.edu; accessed 02/01/2007 by author.

[4] May, review of Grand Expectations, 1262.

[5] Byrnes suggested that Patterson subsume his expectations thesis to the dual problems of "arrogant confidence" and "paranoid insecurity."

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