Todd Gitlin Critical Essays

Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Todd Gitlin 1943-

American journalist, essayist, novelist, poet, critic, and historian.

The following entry presents an overview of Gitlin's career through 2002.

Former president of Students for a Democratic Society, Gitlin is a renowned historian of the 1960s and the New Left, as well as a media critic who has written extensively on media saturation and the role of television in popular culture.

Biographical Information

Gitlin was born in New York City January 6, 1943, to Max and Dorothy Siegel Gitlin, both teachers. He attended Harvard University, where he received a B.A. in mathematics in 1963. He continued his education at the University of Michigan, where he earned an M.A. in political science in 1966; and at the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned a Ph.D. in sociology in 1977. During the 1960s Gitlin was active in the New Left anti-war movement, serving as president of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). He was a writer for the San Francisco Express Times in 1968 and 1969 and has since held a variety of teaching positions, including lectureships at San Jose State College and the University of California, Santa Cruz. He worked for seventeen years at the University of California-Berkeley, serving as assistant professor from 1978 to 1983, associate professor from 1983 to 1987, and as professor of sociology and director of the mass communications programs from 1987 to 1995. In 1995, Gitlin accepted a position as professor of culture and communication, journalism, and sociology at New York University. He has served as a visiting professor at Yale, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, the University of Iowa, the University of Oslo, and Wesleyan. Gitlin has won grants from the MacArthur Foundation, the Institute for Global Conflict and Cooperation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Rockefeller Foundation. He was awarded the Bay Area Book Reviewers Association Award in 1984 for Inside Prime Time (1983) and the Harold U. Ribalow Prize in 2000 for Sacrifice (1999). Gitlin married Laurel Cook in 1995. He is currently professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and serves as a contributing writer to Mother Jones magazine.

Major Works

Gitlin's first published writing was a study co-written with Nanci Hollander titled Uptown: Poor Whites in Chicago (1970). He then edited a volume of poetry called Campfires of the Resistance: Poetry from the Movement (1971), and published a poetry collection, Busy Being Born, in 1974. In 1980, he produced the first of several commentaries on American media, The Whole World Is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left, devoted to the media's coverage of the rise and fall of Students for a Democratic Society and addressing the media's role in political movements in general. Inside Prime Time (1983), is a critical analysis of the complex power relationships between advertisers and network executives, and the role of the major television networks in setting cultural and political agendas. In 1986 Gitlin edited Watching Television, a collection of essays including Gitlin's own “Looking through the Screen,” which serves as an introduction and overview for the book, and “We Build Excitement,” his analysis of car commercials. A year later, Gitlin published The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (1987), a political and cultural history of that decade as well as a personal account of his own evolution from a child of the liberal middle-class to the more radical SDS activist he became during that era.

In the 1990s, Gitlin turned to fiction writing while continuing to produce cultural histories and media criticism. In 1992 he published his first novel, The Murder of Albert Einstein, a mystery that takes as its premise the potential poisoning of the title character. This was followed by the award-winning novel Sacrifice in 1999. In 1995, Gitlin addressed the splintering of the Left brought about by identity politics and the political correctness movement in The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked by Culture Wars. Gitlin's most recent works are Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives (2002) and Letters to a Young Activist (2003). The first offers a critique of media saturation and outlines various strategies employed by individuals attempting to cope with the all-pervasive quality of today's media; the second offers advice and inspiration to youthful advocates of social and political change.

Critical Reception

Gitlin's work is informed by his dual perspectives as political activist and scholar, earning him “widespread respect within and outside the left for both political and intellectual integrity,” according to Don Lazare. Many critics consider The Sixties an intriguing blend of memoir and history that is balanced and fair. Several critics have noted the apparent contradiction between Gitlin's early role as a critic of established institutions, and his later roles as a faculty member of the very institutions he earlier condemned. Michael W. Hirschorn reports that Gitlin is “not the only New Left radical who has returned to the academy, the same academy that served as a spawning ground for the student movement.” Hirschorn claims that Gitlin himself sees no inconsistency in his youthful position as a leader of campus protests and his current position as tenured professor. Winifred Breines has censured The Sixties and other retrospective histories of the movement written during the 1980s, lamenting the heavily male gender composition of the 1960s protest movement. According to Breines, “Today it is precisely those white, male former new leftists who are writing, reviewing, and being written about in books on the New Left, thus eerily reconstituting the male voice that predominated twenty years ago.” One of Gitlin's most favorably received books is Inside Prime Time. According to Gaye Tuchman, the book “presents the richest information ever collected on the inner workings of America's chief culture industry.” Other commentators concur, asserting the book delivers an insightful look at insulated executives within the television industry. Gitlin's understanding of the media industry has provided a basis for his fiction writing, according to Ron Carlson. In a review of The Murder of Albert Einstein, Carlson stated: “Gitlin is at his very best in the scenes involving the media,” praising Gitlin's choice of using a television personality as a narrator within the book. The Twilight of Common Dreams was lauded by Jonathan Alter, who considers Gitlin “especially good in connecting academic fads like Michel Foucault with the descent into absurdity” represented by the political correctness movement. Other critics, such as Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, have claimed that Gitlin's characterization of his opposition is unfair in this work, and that he fails to recognize differences existing within the right wing.