The civil rights and antiwar movements of the sixties are two of the most famous social and cultural phenomena of the post-war period. Many readers, like me, will have been waiting for years for a book that really explains what was going on during this turbulent time.
Anyone who has been following the academic world in the last few years will know that Simon Hall is one of history's real rising stars. People might question his credentials, given that actually Hall is an Englishman, from the middle-class West Midlands town of Cheltenham, but the man certainly knows his stuff. I only spotted one mistake in the whole book: in the very first sentence, Hall refers to Eric "the Octopus" Terrell, when any boxing fan worth his salt knows that the man's name was Ernie. Perhaps he was thinking of Eric the Eel, the failed Olympic swimmer.
Anyway, after that unfortunate beginning, Hall's book is a really good read. He brilliantly shows why the civil rights and antiwar movements rose and fell, and explains why they found it so difficult to work together. Some of the stuff here about the clowns at the extremes of both movements is absolutely hilarious, but Hall resists the temptation to poke fun at them, giving an account that is balanced, thoughtful, always riveting and scrupulously researched.
Above all, he shows how both movements were really a resurgence of a much older reform tradition, a point that is far too often neglected by scholars. (An exception is the new biography of Eugene McCarthy, which the senator himself attacked but which received some really terrific reviews. That's another book I can't wait to read. Funnily enough, the author of that book, too, is an Englishman. Are all the best historians these days from England? I'm also thinking of guys like Hugh Wilford, Robert J. Cook and Anthony J. Badger.)
If you're interested in the 60s, the civil rights era, the Vietnam War or whatever, you've just got to buy this book. What a great read! And there's something else, too. Hall's acknowledgments just have to be seen to be believed. Wow, that guy had a lot of friends! Did everyone in England help him for his book? And who's this guy Nat Millett? -- he sounds like quite a character.
Seriously though, this is a brilliant debut for such a young historian. It's a book that surely changes the whole field of sixties history. I can't wait to see what this young man from the English Midlands does next.