In This Review

The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief
The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief
By George M. Marsden
Basic Books, 2014, 264 pp.

Between 1960 and 1980, American intellectual discourse grew less dependent on the dialogues between mostly white, mostly Protestant men that had shaped national debates until that point and shifted toward the more pluralistic and open-ended conversation that defines American public life today. Marsden has the rare ability to describe complex controversies in clear and concise prose, and he explores the meaning of this change by returning to the almost forgotten work of U.S. public intellectuals of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Like dinosaurs unaware of the meteor speeding toward earth, the towering intellects and prestigious thinkers of that era thought and wrote with very little awareness of the impending change. Although Marsden feels no nostalgia for the flawed consensus of those days, he asks some probing questions about whether today’s public conversation is flexible enough to accommodate the increasing pluralism of American society and strong enough to support the values and common purpose that a democratic society requires.