U.S. Intellectual History Blog

An ad hoc Canon for the 1980s

ecoYesterday I started reading Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.  Apparently, I’m not the only one who was recently inspired to delve into this 1980s bestseller; when I went online last weekend to order a copy from amazon, they were out of stock, and the estimated delivery time was 2-3 weeks.  Then I went by my local-ish Barnes & Noble last Monday, and they were sold out.  So I went home and rooted around online and found a used hardback copy that sounded all right – it’s in pretty decent shape, and it didn’t cost me any more than a new paperback would have, even with express shipping.  (Apparently, someone has finally cranked up the printing presses; if you order a copy of Eco’s novel on Amazon today, you can get it by Tuesday.)

Surely, Eco’s novel is selling especially briskly these days because of the sad news of his recent passing.   Many people who had long said to themselves, “I really ought to read The Name of the Rose some day,” were simultaneously moved to pick up a copy of the novel at last.  And I am indeed one among that multitude.

Eco’s novel has been on my “to read” list for a while, partly because I thought I would enjoy it (and I certainly do), and partly because it is pertinent to my research interests.  Eco’s novel hit the bestseller list just a couple of years before “the canon wars” broke out at Stanford and then went national.  So, I wonder, how did Eco’s narrative shape readers’ ideas about texts and meaning, about the limits and the liquidity of language, about the value of books?  How might Eco have prepared the way for Allan Bloom’s jeremiad, or how might he have subtly cushioned Bloom’s subsequent polemical blow?

It seems to me that The Name of the Rose – and, for that matter, the rollicking filmic romp of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, though I’m sure someone will be appalled that I would lay those two texts side by side – can serve as a useful source to reveal popular (indeed, best-selling and top-grossing) notions about meaning, tradition, truth, the power (and limits) of books, the relationship of the past to the present.  That’s what I’m looking at, anyhow – that, and Harrison Ford in all his blond, bronzed, brusque and brawny glory.

Which brings me to the problem of selection…

Right now, for reasons that have as much to do with my own psychic needs as a writer as they have to do with my own research needs as a scholar, I’m sticking with texts that I would simply enjoy, even if they had nothing to add to the evidentiary stores from which I am fashioning my argument.  But soon enough I will need to visit – or re-visit – some texts that I ought to look at, that I must look at, if I’m going to really take the pulse of the cultural moment(s) I seek to diagnose.  But what texts are those?  What – or whom — must I read, and what/whom can I get away with simply reading about?

Of course that’s an impossible question to answer.  It is for me, anyhow – at least at the moment.  To make a list of novels that one has to read – or movies or music videos that one has to see – in order to understand, say, the 1980s, is to create a canon for the 1980s.  “Here is a decade distilled into the top five, or top ten, or top fifty significant novels/films/events.  Master this list, and you’ve mastered the moment.”  I can’t do that – at least, I can’t set out to do that.

But whatever I select, whatever I eventually look at, whatever I draw from to recreate (or create anew) that time and temper for my readers – whatever my bibliography of primary sources eventually includes – will be a sort of ad hoc canon, a set of sources that, while not exhaustive, includes something of everything that was (in this author’s judgment) crucial for the work of bringing that past — as this author understands it — to life for present readers.

I don’t know yet what my 1980s canon will include.  Do I need to say something about Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero? I don’t know; I’ve never read it.  Maybe that one goes on my “just read about it” list.  There’s only one way to find out:  add it to my “to read” list and then re-evaluate when I’m a chapter or two into the text.

Well, that’s not entirely true – there are some other sorting mechanisms available to me, including but not limited to the collective wisdom of our readers.  I’ve asked folks at this blog before to help me compile a bibliography of secondary sources for the 1980s, and the results were really fantastic.

So let me go to the well again.  But this time, I’m going to drop the bucket down into memory, and sensation, and desire, and delight, and even despair – down, down, down, into the deep well of primary sources, primal experiences, privileged perspectives.  I have my own perspective, my own experience of the 1980s.  But for the rest of you, I ask you:  what music, what movie, what novel, what conflict, what critical intervention, what crisis, sums up what the 1980s felt like for you?

If you wish, if you can, add your version or your vision of the 1980s to my little, limited, ad hoc canon.  I may not read — or watch — it all, but at least I (and others) can here read all about it.

43 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Just to get things started:

    – Film: War Games, Top Gun, Wall Street
    – Music Videos: Michael Jackson’s Thriller. It was replayed so many times I can’t think of anything else!
    – Music (albums/songs): Michael Jackson’s Thriller (album), Madonna (just about anything), REM’s Green (album), Bruce Springsteen’s Born in USA (album), Prince’s 1999 and Purple Rain (albums), Tina Turner’s Private Dancer, etc.
    – Novels/Novelists: Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, Stephen King books (all/any), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, etc.

    …This should get things going. – TL

    • Hey, (I’ve only got this far, I’ll comment later) I like your musical selections. But you can’t mention Michael Jackson and Prince and not mention Rick James (e.g., the Street Songs LP): those three were battling it out for the title of King of popular acclaim in music.

  2. This is a great topic to think about, LD. For me the following works might constitute at least *part* of my personal canon for the 1980s:

    1. *Watchmen* and *The Dark Knight Returns*–these two comic book miniseries, both later collected as graphic novels, revolutionized American comic books. for the next generation of readers, writers, and artists. Both works were also where comic books–at least the American version of this media–were deconstructed. What constituted a hero, a villain? What would society be like if we *really* had costumed vigilantes running around? Further, I think it’s interesting that in *Watchmen* the shadow of Vietnam looms over the story–albeit due to the fact that, in this universe, the powers of Dr. Manhattan swung the war decisively towards American victory.

    The Cold War is important to both books. In both stories, the threat of war between the United States and the Soviet Union makes the works dated. Which, in many ways, might be why they both appeal to me.

    One quick nod, also, to early hip hop during this era–the albums of Run-DMC, for instance, would have to be considered part of the canon of this era.

  3. Also, thinking some more about the canon in regards to American (high-brow) literature, *The Color Purple* (1982) and *Beloved* (1987) are both quite important. The expansion of the American canon to include more African American women writers in the 1970s and 1980s is vitally important.

  4. Okay you guys — don’t all pick up stones to stone me, but…

    …I’ve never (AFAIK) listened to Purple Rain, and I’ve never read anything by Margaret Atwood…

    …which is precisely why I wrote this post. Whatever glimpse I had of the 1980s is hardly “canon” — but maybe I can cobble a canon together from all y’all’s collective memories. Thanks so much for the comments. Keep ’em coming!

  5. Jay McInerney’s short story, “It’s 6 a.m., Do You Know Where You Are” is an almost perfect short story as well as an excellent evocation of New York in the 1980s. It recalls not just Carver, of which it is pretty derivative, but also Scott Fitzgerald’s “Absolution” and some of his more Catholic stories. This story was the basis for his novel, Bright Lights, Big City which is much more uneven. (Don’t even bother with the forgettable Michael J.Fox film based on the same.)

    I heard McInerney read his story for Selected Shorts a few years ago, and was so struck by its humor and perfection. You may be able to find a copy of the story online or on i-Tunes.

    • I was writing the comment below as you were writing this. I agree that “It’s 6 am, Do You Know Where You Are” probably delivers more bang for the buck than Brights Lights does.

  6. I’d choose Jay McInerny’s Bright Lights, Big City over Less Than Zero. Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities belongs, too. Some other items (in no particular order and chosen for significance as much as actual quality in a few cases): Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Paul Simon’s Graceland, The Clash’s London Calling, a whole bunch of British New Wave and synth pop music (The Cure, Spandau Ballet, A Flock of Seagulls, Duran Duran, Culture Club etc etc etc). But the movie Working Girl may actually be the most perfect distillation of the ’80s in any genre.

  7. I grew up young in the 1980s so, from that perspective, I’d suggest the films Three O’Clock High and Back to the Future (and most John Hughes films). For music, the Stray Cats and the Violent Femmes. For books, And the Band Played On and A People’s History of the United States. And beyond the categories above, there were also a lot of television specials/miniseries (as well as regular series) that might be worth consideration, particularly there were a lot of historical-based miniseries. Those might be useful sources for thinking about the popular relationship between the present and the past, which is what my own work focuses on but in the 18th century.

  8. I didn’t read it until the 1990s, but Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, published in 1985, is probably one of the best American novels published in the ’80s. I’ve never been moved to re-read it, except for little bits, but the book’s language/diction/style is more than striking. As an embodiment of amorality and sociopathy wrapped in a kind of twisted mixture of Social Darwinism and vulgarized Nietzsche, the character of Judge Holden must be one of the key fictional creations of the decade.

    Quite a while back, Andrew Hartman wrote a post here about Blood Meridian and I left a comment (the only one on that post, if memory serves).

      • p.p.s. I have some other thoughts but will limit it to one: Robert Stone’s A Flag for Sunrise (pub. ’81, I think), which is basically about American naivete and hubris combining to help cause havoc in a fictional central American country.

  9. Cool project!

    Two movies jump out at me right away. Wall Street and Risky Business both hit on the whole idea of “success” (ie how a young man will conquer the worlds of business and romance) which is a key 80’s thread. And they both look just so incredibly 80’s.

    Three things about the politics of the 80’s that are pretty good would be Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes about the 88′ presidential election, Haynes Johnson’s Sleep Walking Through History, and the 1981 Atlantic article about Reagan’s budget director “The Education of David Stockman”. Sounds boring I know, but I think Stockman’s theories about “how the world works” relates to the whole neoliberalism thing you’re working on.

    And of course no list about 80’s books is complete without The Bonfire Of The Vanities.

  10. TV: The heyday of the big budget historical tv mini-series: Marco Polo, A.D. George Washington, North and South, Winds of War, War and Remembrance.

    Movies: original Star Wars/Indiana jones trilogy ( as noted above) in Theaters. Christopher Reeve as Superman

    Comicbooks: As partially noted by Robert, The British Invasion of American Comics, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman

  11. Ooooh, what fun! In random order, & all fondly recalled:
    –Films: The Princess Bride, Flashdance, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, White Nights, Dirty Dancing, Amadeus, Dead Poets Society, Footloose
    –Music Videos: Always “Thriller.” Also: Eurythmics, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This”); The Police, “Every Breath You Take”; RUN-DMC & Aerosmith, “Walk This Way”; Prince, “When Doves Cry”; Cyndi Lauper, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”
    –TV: Mutual of Omaha’s “Wild Kingdom”; “Mork and Mindy”; “Designing Women”; “Murphy Brown.” TV Specials: Princess Diana’s wedding; “North and South” miniseries
    –Writers: Amy Tan, “The Joy Luck Club”; Garrison Keillor, “Lake Wobegon Days”; Pat Conroy, “The Prince of Tides”
    –Artists: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, Robert Mapplethorpe, Julian Schnabel

  12. A few that I’ve added to Facebook (tons there, and on Twitter too):

    1984 Olympics opening ceremonies (heck, the whole 1984 olympics)
    Jesse Jackson’s speech to the 1984 DNC
    The Fridge
    1986 Challenger disaster
    100th anniversary celebration of the Statue of Liberty in ’86
    1989 “Bay Bridge” world series (and, alas, the earthquake)

    These were moments, not “texts” per se, but they capture some of the common (or, if you don’t like sports, plebeian) texture of the 1980s.

    But for common texts, how about “The Far Side” and “Bloom County”?


  13. The books, movies, and music that framed a mid-western coming-of-age story. These are the ones that made me think, rather than just partake in, as part of mass culture:
    **The Outsiders (film, 1983); Prince, Purple Rain (album, film); Bruce Springsteen, Born in the USA; Billy Joel, Allentown (song and video)
    **And the Band Played On; Gorillas/Woman in the Mists (books and film)
    **The Replacements, all albums
    **Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being; War Games (film)
    **Betty Blue; My Beautiful Laundrette
    **Tracy Chapman

  14. Essence of 80s Theatre (in no particular order):
    Plays: Fences by August Wilson; Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet; The Heidi Chronicles by Wendy Wasserstein; The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer

    Musicals: Cats and Phantom of the Opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber; Les Miserables by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg; Sunday in the Park with George by Stephen Sondheim; La Cage aux Folles by Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Herman

  15. “There is no way to decide at once whether an analogy is good or bad, because to some degree everything is connected to everything else” (1988 Foucault’s Pendulum, paperback 602). I recently finished the apposite Prague Cemetery.

  16. — “Dallas” on television, especially the “Who Shot J.R.?” episode of 1980 and the “Bobby’s Dream” season of 1984-85
    –“E.T. phone home” – 1982
    — the rise of “Late Night with David Letterman,” which debuted in the post-Johnny Carson time slot in 1982
    “Cats” on Broadway, 1983
    — “Lake Wobegon Days” – the novel, which was published in 1985
    — “The Breakfast Club” – John Hughes, 1985
    — “West End Girls” of the Pet Shop Boys was released in 1985
    — “The Simpsons” developed a cult following on The Tracy Ullman Show starting in 1987

  17. Oh, to add to my tweet, the most powerful music of the 1980s as far as I was concerned was Stan Rogers. It was the accident that killed him from which we got those little lights on the airplane floor to guide us to the exits in case of smoke. But he’s Canadian (though his influence on US folk music was considerable), so I don’t know if that’s going to make your list.

  18. I second Mike Hattem’s recommendation for “Back to the Future” above. Additionally, you might want to consider James Cameron’s “Aliens” (1986) for the list. It evinces several prominent themes of American culture of the 80s: Anxiety over the still-recent memory of Viet Nam (“They’re comin’ out of the God-Damn walls!”), a growing acceptance of women as capable figures (Ripley as an action heroine), etc.

    If you’re also accepting entries for popular history, I think the canon should include James Mcpherson’s “Battle Cry of Freedom” (1988, IIRC). It’s nearly 30 years old and it’s still the gold standard for histories of the Civil War for many people. Certainly is for me!

  19. Since Chet has already opened the Pandora’s Box of lowbrow evening soap operas with “Dallas,” I want to add that whole genre of television programming that involved the melodramatic romanticization of wealth, privilege, and conspicuous consumption: “Dallas,” “Dynasty,” “Falcon Crest,” “Hart to Hart,” etc. (We can include “Beverly Hills 90210” if we want to consider a longue duree 1980s.) As longwalkdownlyndale has already observed, the unapologetic wallowing in wealth is an especially conspicuous cultural hallmark of this decade.

  20. You should probably have a Tom Clancy novel in there. Not because they’re particularly brilliant novels, but because they are especially good at evoking the hyper-masculinity, technophilia, and muscular foreign policy of the US after detente. Would you also include contemporary texts that look back nostalgically at the 1980s? I’m really enjoying the German television series “Deutschland 83” at the moment – among other things it has a great soundtrack from the period!

  21. Wow. I’m heartened, delighted and charmed by these many responses — and *hundreds* of suggestions via Twitter. I’ll storify it all eventually and post a link here.

    I guess “80s nostalgia” is what I’m leveraging to compile my list, so I will need to examine the nostalgia itself if only in order to partly account for what isn’t on this collective list (once I figure out what’s missing).

    John Irving novels would go on my own 80s list– especially The Hotel New Hampshire, even though Garp was better known and more widely read. (And I’m guessing the Garp movie drew bigger audiences than the HNH film too, though I haven’t looked it up.) Also (as someone mentioned on Twitter) definitely Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and the end of M*A*S*H*, and the debut of The Cosby Show. Sinead O’Connor ripping up the Pope’s photo live on SNL.

    And of course there were the endlessly entertaining (but also malevolently moralistic) televangelists: Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, and old Oral Roberts getting so many people’s hopes up by promising that the Lord would take him home if godly givers didn’t pony up enough cash.

    Also on the airwaves and the front pages of the 80s: Donald Trump and Marla Maples and Phil Donahue and Dr. Ruth. Wade Boggs and Margo Adams watching him from the stands.

    As to baseball’s better angels: the Bash Brothers, if you must — but also the Pacific Sock Exchange. Even from the bleacher seats at Candlestick — hell, maybe especially from there — anyone could see that Will Clark had the sweetest swing in baseball.

    That’s nostalgia. But there was also the awfulness of the 1980s — the “crack epidemic” (not the cocaine epidemic, naturally) and the panic about “crack babies.” So there was a war on (some) drugs, but for too long no war on AIDS — instead, among many, a shameful indifference to the plight of its victims. An indifference from some, but from others — from the above-mentioned televangelist crowd and their fellow-travelers and donors and all the Moral Majority dynamolaters trading on the cross of Christ for some good old worldly power in Reagan-era America — an unholy glee in the sufferings of AIDS victims. And greed was good.

    I don’t know — maybe in some ways 80s nostalgia is the horse that Donald Trump has been riding to get this far, or at the very least one of the horses pulling his chariot of ire. So maybe 80s nostalgia is not something to be indulged, then, but something to be historicized up one side and down the other.

    I’ll figure it out for my work, and collectively I guess we’ll all figure things out together.

    In the meantime, thanks again for the many mementos of the 1980s — and do keep them coming.

    • “…one of the horses pulling his chariot of ire.”

      L.D., what a great phrase! This one’s definitely going to stay with me.

  22. It’s been great to read through the comments to this post, definitely feeling the 80s nostalgia.

    Latinx canon: Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands / La Frontera, Richard Rodríguez’s Hunger of Memory, the rise of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and slam poetry, the Miami Sound Machine. Morraga and Anzaldúa’s This Bridge Called my Back.

    Queer canon: The Celluloid Closet. Edmund White. Definitely Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction over Less than Zero. Larry Kramer and ACT UP. Alice Bechdel’s awesome comic strips, Dykes to Watch Out For. Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider. Morraga and Anzaldúa.

    Random stuff: Sugar Ray Leonard and Mike Tyson. The Beastie Boys. Whitney Houston. Slasher flicks. Nightmare on Elm Street. Peewie’s Fun House.

  23. This post got me walking over to my bookshelf, where it turns out I don’t have a lot from the 80s, even though I did a lot of formative reading then. I’d suggest, in addition to what other people have said above:

    Gish Jen, Typical American
    Mary Gaitskill, Two Girls, Fat and Thin
    Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (I haven’t read this, only seen the novel)
    Broadcast News

    These all seem to be in the category “after I graduated from college”, as opposed to before, or before I finished high school.

    A.S. Byatt, Possession, was published in 1990, but is set in the 1980s and I remember it being read a lot by academics at the time (I got a recommendation for it from a labor history professor, of all things).

    • The first two books were actually published in 1991, it seems.

      Maybe Neuromancer or The Vampire Lestst. Raymond Carver’s collection “Cathedral”?

  24. Some additions to the movies list(s), with apologies if some of these have already been mentioned on FB or elsewhere:

    Dressed to Kill (dir. Brian De Palma) 1980; Blue Velvet (dir. David Lynch) ’86, The Untouchables (dir. De Palma; cast includes K. Costner) ’87, Stand by Me (dir. Rob Reiner; cast includes R. Phoenix) ’86, River’s Edge (cast includes K. Reeves) ’86.

    • p.s. Saw all of these in theaters, except for the last one mentioned, which I’ve only seen clips of. ‘The Untouchables’ has the pram-bouncing-down-steps scene in direct echo of Eisenstein’s ‘Battleship Potemkin’ (1925).

  25. Some items not mentioned. The A Team, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Cheers, and lastly, Murder She Wrote. In music, I see no one has mentioned U2’s Unforgettable Fire or Live Aid and Farm Aid. I think the bicentennial of the U.S. constitution led to a proliferation of historical works of a certain tenor. No one has mentioned Revenge of the Nerds, Porky’s, or other bawdy comedies. Not “canon: per se but I think the Martin Mull movie “Serial” a 1980 critique of Marin County life foreshadowed a lot of the culture wars. I also like the short lived ABC comedies Police Squad! and Sledgehammer! For pop culture, no one has mentioned Rubik’s Cube or Pac-man. Lastly, there was a show by Bill Moyers on PBS called World of Ideas which showcased the era’s leading public intellectuals as diverse as Noam Chomsky, Forrest McDonald, Elaine Pagels, and Isaac Asimov.

    • I forgot the original Cosmos with Carl Sagan and the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense.

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