Alan Petigny, RIP

An historian of the permissive society passes away.


I'm sorry to report the death of the historian Alan Petigny, author of the excellent book The Permissive Society. As I wrote in my review, Petigny made a strong case that the '40s and '50s were

A book that you should read.
Cambridge University Press

marked by "an unprecedented challenge to traditional moral restraints." Petigny isn't referring to a bohemian subculture or to rock 'n' roll rebellion: There are only a few scattered references to beatniks in this book, and its discussion of pop music devotes more space to Pat Boone than to Elvis Presley. Petigny is talking about the great American middle, whose values in areas ranging from child rearing to religious piety underwent a rapid and radical change long before the love-ins….

Note that this shift began before it started to be reflected in popular culture. The debut of Playboy in 1953 may have been a watershed moment in the sexual revolution, but it didn't spark that revolution. "Placing changes in sexual behavior after those in the consumer culture—or, in other words, putting Elvis or Hefner before mass changes in behavior—essentially puts the cart before the horse," Petigny writes. "The crucial distinction between the fifties and sixties lay in word, not in deed. During the 1960s, Americans were simply more willing to acknowledge the extracurricular activities of their youth than they had been during the previous decade."

I differed with the book on some points, but it is a major contribution to our understanding of recent American history. It's a shame to see its author die so young—he was born in 1965, so he didn't even make it to 50—and it's a shame to think that there won't be a follow-up.