J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, February 21, 2015

Gordon Wood’s Lawn

It’s been two years since my posting on “The Search for a Usable Gordon Wood”, and the man maintains the ability to provoke lots of younger historians with his writing.

This week Wood published a review in The Weekly Standard of Bernard Bailyn’s latest collection of essays, Sometimes an Art. Bailyn was Wood’s dissertation director at Harvard back in 1964. At ages 92 and 81, Bailyn and Wood are the most prominent champions of the “consensus” or “ideological” approach to the history of the American Revolution.

After praising the new book, Wood laments at length that historians today don’t pay more respect to Bailyn’s recent work and are off working on other topics and questions. Some of his complaints seem contradictory, as when Wood notes favorably that Bailyn “founded, and for many years directed, the International Seminar on the History of the Atlantic World, which helped to shape a new field of history,” yet sniffs that as a result of studying the Atlantic world “the boundaries of the colonial period of America have become mushy and indistinct.”

Wood complains that “many historians have become obsessed with inequality,” though the only evidence he feels worth noting for that is an observation that Bailyn quotes from Isaiah Berlin, visiting America in the late 1940s. It’s surprising to see someone who’s devoted so much attention to the intellectual life of the Revolutionary generation suggest that taking political action on the basis that “all men are created equal” isn’t a core part of the American tradition. And surely a trend that extends back longer than Wood’s entire academic career deserves more respect.

At the Junto blog, William R. Black tracked down two critical remarks on Bailyn’s work that Wood quotes disapprovingly (but, given the standards of the Standard, doesn’t cite by name). They date from 1986 and 1988, or over a quarter-century ago. They’re farther from our time than they were from the publication of Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (1967). The authors of those phrases, Michael Zuckerman and James Henretta, have joined Bailyn and Wood in emeritus status. And yet they supposedly stand for “many historians” today.

Jonathan Wilson found a third quotation from the New York Times Book Review of Bailyn’s last book, The Barbarous Years, two years ago. That reviewer wasn’t an academic historian but the science journalist Charles C. Mann. And that review was generally positive. But again, it supposedly stands for most of the blinkered profession today.

In a series of Twitter postings, Wilson also analyzed Wood’s notion of the “nation” that he wishes historians would study, concluding that he’s actually focused on the “state,” powerful institutions and the people in control of them. In Wood’s description, the “dispossessed” are by definition “fragmentary” to that national story.

Likewise, at Lawyers, Guns, and Money, Erik Loomis sums up Wood’s essay as based on the idea that “the ‘whole of the nation’s past’ does not include race or gender; rather such subjects are the enemy of telling that whole.” While criticizing unnamed scholars for focusing too narrowly, Wood sets large parts of American society outside the field of study.

Other Twitter responses collected here show young history professors and graduate students objecting to how Wood characterizes their approach. Contrary to what he writes, they said, they do teach and study the whole of the nation. They do seek to build national narratives. (Zuckerman and Henretta called for the same things in the 1980s.) And many current history teachers continue to use books from the “consensus” school (Wood’s own titles more than Bailyn’s, from what I saw) as an important part of their work—but only part.

Wood’s scolding that younger historians should be “less keen to use history to solve our present problems” and “are not really interested in the past as the past at all” makes a sharp contrast with how he forgave present-day political and legal uses of a flattened version of the past in a 2011 review of Jill Lepore’s book about the Tea Party movement. The Edge of the American West looked at Wood’s own writing from the 1970s and 1980s, finding plenty of concerns about contemporary issues, and suggests, “Perhaps Wood the younger would have to get off Wood the elder’s lawn.”

At the U.S. Intellectual History blog, Eran Zelnik took a contrarian stand toward Wood’s claim to be standing up to “presentism”: ”We all have agendas. The question is how forthcoming are we about them. . . . If Wood…had he told us that above all else he wants American history to uphold the current balance of power in the US by creating awe inspiring origin narratives—we would have had a much more interesting discussion.“

On Twitter, Nick Sacco noted that Wood didn’t provide any evidence for his complaints about the bulk of American historiography: no books, papers, authors, or passages that he felt exemplified his sweeping thesis. Sacco found the result unconvincing.

But the Weekly Standard audience doesn’t need convincing evidence, Benjamin Carp suggested on Facebook. Wood’s review simply echoes the American right’s regular complaint about academia ever since it lost control of that sector of society: that professors are too progressive, out of touch, closed-minded, and so on. The governor of Wisconsin (a political activist in college before dropping out) was recently detected trying to remove “the search for truth” from the state university’s mandate while adding the goal “to meet the state’s workforce needs.” If Wood is really interested in “disinterested scholarship, disinterested history-writing” as his review says, there’s a bigger threat than young historians studying liberty in practice as well as liberty in ideology.


Tom Van Dyke said...

The vociferousness and personalized nature of the furor Wood has raised on the left indicates that this isn't exactly about history.

It's a shame his piece had to appear in the conservative Weekly Standard. I wonder if it was offered to "mainstream" rags like the Atlantic or the "moderate" New Republic.

J. L. Bell said...

I think Wood's attempt to narrow the field of American history has a political dimension to begin with, whether he acknowledges that or not.

Wood has usually published reviews in magazines like the New York Review of Books—standard intellectual publications. I read one person's comment that he wrote this review for The New Republic, but moved to The Weekly Standard after the editorial furor at the first magazine—but I don't know if that comment was pure speculation or based on inside knowledge.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Heh heh, JL. That was my guess. ;-P

The Atlantic probably would have had a Chait-like meltdown. The forces of tolerance get very intolerant when their tolerance is questioned.

The plain fact is how the lefty academic establishment [but I repeat myself] circled its wagons against Wood's questioning of their central premise. And although yes, Wood clearly leans to the right, it's more obvious when compared to the blatant [and banal] Marxist [marxian?] reduction of history to oppressor and oppressed.

The problem with the race/class/gender approach is that melodrama--the poor victim tied to the railroad tracks by the dude gleefully twirling his moustache, only to have liberalism ride in on a white horse--educates us little about reality.

This is Wood's argument, not that the worth of those tied to the railroad tracks was insignificant, but that historians should make some argument for their historical significance.

If history is everyone who ever lived and everything that ever happened, well, when everything and everyone is special, nothing is.

Thx for your reply. I've seen little discussion of Wood's piece, only grenades lobbed for and mostly against. Almost all the participants have vested interests, those who do history as a profession.

If your upcoming book is on the left-handed Zoroastrian lesbians of pioneer Wisconsin, you're not likely to give Wood any back.

J. L. Bell said...

It's rare to see such an extended performance of fatuousness as Tom Van Dyke’s comment above.

Van Dyke treats all studies of people oppressed because of race, class, or gender (i.e., most Americans over time) as if the authors of those studies had made no argument that their chosen topics were “significant.” Logically, that means that in Van Dyke’s “reality” those people are insignificant, despite his self-protective denial of that sentiment.

If Van Dyke were genuinely concerned about studies too narrow to be “significant,” he wouldn’t equate those with “the race/class/gender approach.” There have been plenty of published articles about comfortable white male Americans who left little impact on their world but enough papers for historians to study. There have been plenty of historical studies of practices or events with little lasting importance. Indeed, Van Dyke spends time at the American Creation site where people discuss such momentous topics as whether John Quincy Adams fits a definition of Unitarianism at a particular moment in his life without offering evidence that that mattered to the wider world at all.

Contrary to Van Dyke’s implication, many studies of “the oppressed” have made the case for their lasting impact on historical events: the “people out of doors” in Philadelphia, black people escaping to the British lines around Charleston, female consumers during non-importation, the pressure of Native nations to the west. Indeed, it’s next to impossible to look at significant events in history with an open mind and not see what Van Dyke hopes to dismiss as “oppressor and oppressed” at work at all times.

The fact that Van Dyke vainly tries to devalue that approach through a combination of sneers, caricature, and red-baiting shows how fragile his artificial creation of “reality” is. Despite posing as a fan of “tolerance,” Van Dyke shows how little he can tolerate any historical thinking that would disturb his complacency. That may bolster a sense of superiority, but only in his own mind, not in historical reality.

We need pay no more attention to Van Dyke—we know already what he’s going to say.