THIS occasionally interesting and frequently irritating book presents itself as a revisionist "cultural and intellectual history" of America during the 1950s, a decade of which its author claims "there is a great gap between image and experience, comparable to the gap in our understanding of the twenties between a sloganized 'Jazz Age' and, for many people, quite a different period as lived." This is not, if you think about it for a second or two, an especially original or arresting notion; the past invariably is distorted by the prisms of memory and interpretation, and clouded by the mists of nostalgia. But what is perhaps more to the point is that the viewpoint from which Paul A. Carter observes the 1950s does a pretty good job of distortion on its own.

The viewpoint is that of a career academic and a doctrinaire '60s liberal. Carter apparently has spent just about all of his adult life on one college campus or another (he is now a professor of history at the University of Arizona), an experience that has led him to the mistaken conviction that the attitudes and behavior of the professoriat and its captive audience are of universal interest--which in turn has led him to devote an inordinate (not to mention disproportionate) amount of space to "interpretations of the college student in the fifties" and related subjects. In yet another turn, this leads him to see the '50s almost entirely in terms of the middle and upper- middle classes--the university classes, if you will--and to pay virtually no attention to the rest of American society.

As for Carter's politics, much of it is as admirable as it is predictable, but that is neither here nor there. What is bothersome is that he uses yesterday's events to fight today's battles, which is an entirely illegitimate way of writing history. Thus he not only describes the ideologically calm and self-interested student population of the '50s, but he repeatedly and unfavorably contrasts it with the radically activist generation that followed in the '60s--a viewpoint to which he is entitled, but which is irrelevant to the avowed purpose of his book. The sarcasm with which he describes the situation of women in the '60s is inspired, obviously, by an intense sympathy for the feminism of the '70s and '80s-- again, an attitude to which he is entitled but one that has no bearing on the study at hand. Carter's heart may or may not be in the right place, but Carter's heart has nothing to do with the history of the '50s-- and his insistence that the reader listen to its thumpings soon becomes very annoying.

When he keeps himself out of his tale, Carter is a competent chronicler and occasionally a perceptive interpreter, but hardly the pathfinder he seems to fancy himself. His generally sympathetic and admiring assessment of Dwight Eisenhower is, as he acknowledges, consistent with much current scholarship; perhaps his most valuable contribution is a careful demonstration that Eisenhower's concern about the "military-industrial complex" dated not to his farewell address but to "early in his first year in the White House." He also, in an interesting aside, suggests what might have happened had Robert Taft won the 1952 Republican nomination and been defeated--"not at all an improbable outcome"--by Adlai Stevenson:

"Lacking the professional military credentials to make a compromise settlement in Korea acceptable, President Stevenson watches the Korean conflict smolder on and on. The national mood of frustration escalates into punitive rage. In this poisonous atmosphere the President cannot effectively move against (Sen. Joseph McCarthy), because any word or deed of Stevenson's under these circumstances would be discounted by many Republicans as self-serving . . . or worse, interpreted as part of the ongoing Communist conspiracy. Defeated for a second term, Adlai Stevenson leaves office more discredited than any President since Hoover, only to be appreciated, like Hoover, long afterward. From that possible historical outcome, at least, we were spared by the election of Dwight Eisenhower."

That is plausible, as are many other positions taken by Carter in the course of Another Part of the Fifties: his depiction of the decade as the age of sociology, in which a narcissistic middle class sought to define itself in the hugely popular books of David Riesman, Vance Packard, C. Wright Mills and William S. Whyte; his analysis of the pervasive influence of the hydrogen bomb and the concomitant rise of the "age of anxiety"; his defense of the decade as a time when, in the arts and "the history of ideas," the '50s were not stagnant but "a time for American cultural enrichment"; his account of Eisenhower's well-intentioned "Atoms for Peace" initiative. Another Part of the Fifties does manage to recreate the mood of the day--at least for those who were white, educated and reasonably well-to- do.

But for this and other reasons, it is not the comprehensive history of the decade that Carter evidently would like it to be. In part this is a result of his decision to concentrate on the political, intellectual and high-cultural life of the decade; a book about the '50s that fails to give close scrutiny to such phenomena as Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and James Dean cannot pretend to be a real history. In part it is because he does not always know whereof he speaks; his interpretation of the literary life of the decade is appallingly ignorant, and his overemphasis on the importance of science fiction seems nothing except the indulgence of a personal interest. In part it is because he is not an unduly appealing prose stylist.

In part, too, as was mentioned here a few weeks ago in connection with Nicholas Lemann's far superior Out of the Forties, it is because too much can be made of the arbitrary framework provided by a decade. The "period" that Carter is writing about really began with the close of World War II and ended with the assassination of John F. Kennedy--a period of national self-confidence and optimism, arrogance and fear. Carter has provided a few snapshots from the central part of this period, and a few perceptive analyses, but nothing of any particular moment.