Art historians tell us that photography revolutionized painting. Suddenly there was a better way of recording the physical appearance of things, and artists had to discover new purposes for brush and pigment. But for those living through the revolution, the process must have seemed more gradual. Long after the Impressionists and Cubists and Futurists, there must have been serious portraitists who continued to earn a living depicting brides on their wedding day or businessmen made good.
I kept thinking of those backward-looking artists all the way through Laura Kalman’s “Right Star Rising.” As a work of history about the Ford and Carter years, there is nothing seriously wrong with it. The facts are accurate, the writing is clear and the point of view is not tendentious. Once upon a time, such a book might have been useful to somebody.
But the question it raises—and it’s not a question about this book alone—is: What’s the point of this kind of history in the age of the Internet? Suppose I’m an undergraduate who stumbles for the first time across the phrase “Proposition 13.” I could, if I were minded, walk over to the university library, pull this book from the shelf and flip to the index. Or I could save myself two hours and Google it. I wouldn’t learn more from a Google search than I’d learn in these pages. But I wouldn’t learn a whole lot less either.
Although Kalman’s footnotes suggest some labor in the archives, “Right Star Rising” offers little or nothing in the way of previously undiscovered information about the half-decade under survey, few if any original perceptions. Thus:
“In the summer of 1976, author and journalist Tom Wolfe announced that the United States had entered ‘the me decade.’ . . . Wolfe’s mockery, which suggested that nothing good could come of introspection and individualism, was unfair. True, some Americans wore a bizarre piece of jewelry, the mood ring, which changed colors to reflect their shifting frames of mind. But in the aftermath of Watergate, the Vietnam War and the ’60s, it seemed only appropriate to look inward.”
A historian reading Wolfe’s essay 30 years later might wonder: Was he right? If so, why did these things happen? What consequences did they have?
Kalman, a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, does not wonder about any of this. She accepts Wolfe’s generalization unskeptically, reports it inaccurately (he was not talking about “introspection”), then scolds him for it. After this detour into the uncertain realm of mentalities and values, Kalman reverts with relief to the next job: a close summary of the main provisions of the 1974 campaign finance law.
At least when you are writing American political history, recent technological change should force you to think: What am I doing and why? People can watch Richard Nixon’s resignation speech for themselves on their phones. Government agencies post inflation and unemployment numbers stretching back to World War II. If I am to tell the story of the recent past, I must tell more than is instantly accessible to any moderately motivated citizen. Rather than (for example) recite the campaign finance law’s contents, I should help my reader to understand its subtle, far-reaching and perverse effects. Otherwise, who needs me?
Like many books of modern history, “Right Star Rising” neglects that self-interrogation. The result is a diligent recapitulation of well-known events, perfectly competent and more or less unnecessary.