On the Cusp

The Yale College Class of 1960 and a World on the Verge of Change

by Daniel Horowitz

On the Cusp by Daniel Horowitz

How did the 1950s become “The Sixties”? This is the question at the heart of Daniel Horowitz’s On the Cusp. Part personal memoir, part collective biography, and part cultural history, the book illuminates the dynamics of social and political change through the experiences of a small, and admittedly privileged, generational cohort.

A Jewish “townie” from New Haven when he entered Yale College in fall 1956, Horowitz reconstructs the undergraduate career of the class of 1960 and follows its story into the next decade. He begins by looking at curricular and extracurricular life on the all-male campus, then ranges beyond the confines of Yale to larger contexts, including the local drama of urban renewal, the lingering shadow of McCarthyism, and decolonization movements around the world. He ponders the role of the university in protecting the prerogatives of class while fostering social mobility, and examines the growing significance of race and gender in American politics and culture, spurred by a convergence of the personal and the political. Along the way he traces the political evolution of his classmates, left and right, as Cold War imperatives lose force and public attention shifts to the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam.

Throughout Horowitz draws on a broad range of sources, including personal interviews, writings by classmates, reunion books, issues of the Yale Daily News, and other undergraduate publications, as well as his own letters and college papers. The end product is a work consistent with much of Horowitz’s previously published scholarship on postwar America, further exposing the undercurrent of discontent and dissent that ran just beneath the surface of the so-called Cold War consensus.

“Evocative book about his Yale college class, which is simultaneously a wistful memoir and a careful history . . . . a rich group portrait of privileged young men on the “cusp” of enormous social changes.”

JONATHAN ZIMMERMAN, Society

“A fascinating personal and public history that uses his Yale University class of 1960 as a prism through which to view the transition between the consensus-oriented students of the 1950s and student activists in the 1960s. . . . Much remains to be understood about how the consensus culture of the 1950s led to a decade where every two years a new generation of more radical activists emerged. But this book is a fine starting place.”

WILLIAM H. CHAFE, Journal of American History

“At the tail end of what came to be known as the Silent Generation, Daniel Horowitz and his classmates negotiated coming of age at Yale College. Here is their story, told with sympathy, irony, and the acuity of a master historian. More than a memoir, Horowitz has given us a subtle and even surprising meditation on the inner life of a bastion of privilege at the height of the American Century.”

SEAN WILENTZ
Author of The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln

“On the Cusp is a book of many pleasures. Horowitz writes about his college years (1956-1960) with both the memoirist’s attention to color and detail, and the historian’s attention to scale. This is consequently a deeply textured treatment of many topics: place and time, youth and coming of age, social identity and social conscience, shifting personal and national horizons, vanished landscapes of custom and convention, and most of all, the fluidity and onrush of social change–an old world fading and a new one beginning to emerge. This will be a valuable retrospective and reappraisal for those who remember these years; it will be an education in itself for those who do not.”

MATTHEW FRYE JACOBSON
William Robertson Coe Professor of American Studies and History, Yale University

“A fascinating memoir and an important contribution to the field of American Studies. Horowitz juxtaposes and contextualizes his own experiences with those of his classmates to address the larger question of generational meaning. Much of this story takes place outside of the classroom and beyond the ivory tower, a testament to Horowitz’s and his fellow students’ ability to position their studies in a global context.”

WENDY KLINE
Bodies of Knowledge: Sexuality, Reproduction, and Women’s Health in the Second Wave

“Although historians of late have done much to unwrap the complexity of the consensus 1950s and in particular to find in the fissures over race, gender, and cold war politics the origins of the tumultuous 1960s, there is still much to be done to create a full picture of the era. With “On the Cusp?” Horowitz takes an innovative approach to unwrapping the preoccupations of the decade through an analysis of Yale’s class of 1960. The memoir part of the book is especially engaging and provides deep insight into Jewish identity in the midst of Yale’s largely anti-Semitic culture and the process by which the university’s racial, ethnic, and gender exclusivity eventually unravelled. But On the Cusp is much more than personal memoir since Horowitz brings impressive research skills and knowledge of modern American history to the account of the Yale curriculum and the social activities, clubs, and intellectual and political engagement of his classmates. His assessment of gender relations at an all-male school is particularly revealing and the account of the way in which de-colonization struggles in Africa engaged thoughtful Yale students, Horowitz included, is especially valuable. Throughout what may be called a collective biography, he asks whether we can see in the education, political, and personal concerns of Yale men a foreshadowing of the radical 1960s. Given Yale’s status as a proving ground for the privileged male elite, it is not surprising that he finds an ambiguous pattern, with some evidence, especially in regards to race, of deep cracks in 1950s consensus/conformity culture, while in others, gender for example, far less prefiguring of what was to come. However, in examining Yale men on both the left and the right, he deftly uncovers challenges to our sense of 1950s students as merely a silent majority in hibernation until the events of the 1960s transformed college youth.”

LYNN DUMENIL
Through Women’s Eyes: an American History with Documents,
co-authored with Ellen C. DuBois