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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Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Search for a Usable Gordon Wood

One of the drawbacks of subscribing to a blog through Google Reader is that I see posts early and miss conversations that later erupt in the comments. Luckily, Bill Hogeland’s Twitter feed alerted me to the response to Michael D. Hattem’s posting “Where Have You Gone, Gordon Wood?” at the Junto.

The comments actually helped Hattem clarify the point of his post:
Wood looms large in the field and yet there is a fair number of people who think of him as merely a caricature or as the butt of a joke, which I find somewhat sad because he has made significant contributions to the field. Hence, I wrote the piece because I thought it would help me think through why this was happening.
One of Hattem’s themes is “generational differences between early Americanists,” with Wood being perhaps the last giant of the “republican,” “ideological,” or “consensus” school, followed by a generation that demanded study of the non-elite as well. Hattem, currently a graduate student, sees himself two generations below Wood, thus having perspective not only on him but on the stars of the intervening years.

Paul wrote in response:
It strikes me that as much as historians try to deny it, nevertheless it appears that a certain teleology or more strikingly a whiggishness haunts the profession. There is the understanding that we stand on the shoulders of those who go before us but the fundamental assumption that the previous generations have built an understanding of history that is broken or incomplete and that succeeding generations can right the wrong is inherent in the discipline.
Is there indeed a generational, even oedipal, conflict with the next generation of historians having to overthrow the most prominent of the previous? Is this the Hegelian dialectic at work, with Wood having helped to define a new synthesis only for it to become the new thesis to be challenged? Or is there just something about the human life cycle that takes many people who start by pushing against boundaries and has them end up yelling at kids to get off the lawn?

Roy Rogers commented:
Wood, himself, is responsible to “poisoning the well” of his relationship with the academy as much as anyone. Since the late 1980s (getting worse into the 1990s to present), Wood has been reviewing many race/class/gender paradigm books negatively – often in snarky and (sometimes) disrespectful ways. You can watch this evolution in Wood’s collection of reviews – “The Purpose of the Past.”
I recall that Wood’s review of Jill Lepore’s The Whites of Their Eyes seemed to bend over backwards to find value in what he acknowledged were false notions of the founding.

Hattem’s remarks and the comments also get into the perpetual issue of popular history versus academic history (i.e., Why don’t more people read my book instead of the latest from a former sportswriter?). That’s a tougher fit because for all his talk about communicating to the public Wood doesn’t really qualify as a popular writer; the closest he’s gotten to that mode is The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, and his big books sell because they’re used in classrooms, not because they entertain. Hattem restates a good point:
I tried to make the point that thinking of narrative as the savior of the profession is a bit naive, especially when you consider popular early American history. The majority of readers who devour books by [David] McCullough and [Ron] Chernow…read them not because they are narratives per se but because they are a particular kind of narrative about the founding and the founders.
I had more to say on “narrative history” in 2009.

Thomas J. Gillan wrote:
I think it’s fair to say, as Dan Rodgers did in 1992, that the republican synthesis was a product of its time and place, that it was a response, in Rodgers’s words, “not to evidence” but to the “interpretive problematics” of a particular moment.
That refers to Daniel T. Rodgers’s article “Republicanism: The Career of a Concept” (P.D.F. download). Rodgers is an intellectual historian, and here he looked not at eighteenth-century ideas of the republic but at late-twentieth-century thinking about those ideas. (Rodgers is also my uncle Dan, hence the special link.)

Finally, I’d push Alec Rogers’s questioning whether Hattem’s phrase “the historians’ version of the chitlin circuit” is the right metaphor. The “rubber-chicken circuit” seems like a better analogy since that involves speaking comfortably to the comfortable. Chitlins are pigs’ intestines, eaten by poor people who couldn’t afford to let any protein go to waste, and they gave their name to a string of legally segregated entertainment venues. In contrast, chicken breasts become rubbery when cooked en masse to please a large group of well-off people who don’t want to be surprised by their food.


Alec Rogers said...

Hi - since you mentioned my comment, please allow me to defend Michael's use of the phrase "Chitlin Circuit," which he qualified as the "historian's version" of the Chitlin Circuit.

The Chitlin Circuit was a place where African American entertainers were welcomed to play, i.e., they provided a welcome haven in a not always friendly world.

There's an aspect of "self selection" about it, which is all, I think, having read Michael's further explanation, he was trying to connote.

J. L. Bell said...

But isn't self-selection also part of the "rubber chicken circuit"? The audience is choosing the speaker (or writer, in the case of a book review organ) for prestige and perceived expertise by mainstream standards.

I don't think historical societies and the New York Review of Books are really an oppressed minority, and tenured professors receiving honoraria suffering from social segregation. At least not to such an extent as to warrant "chitlin circuit" the best comparison.

Furthermore, the chitlin circuit was known for allowing African-American performers to be more emotive, rough, sexual, &c. That was where Sam Cooke could sing "axe" instead of "ask," where Redd Foxx could tell his dirtiest jokes, where performers could acknowledge the racism they suffered with their audiences. The point of the metaphor seemed to me to be that the historians' circuit was unchallenging for its popular audience.

Michael D. Hattem said...

I think a lot more has been read into that metaphor than I originally intended. As a big 40s & 50s R&B fan, I know all about the history of the chitlin' circuit. In the piece, I meant to use it merely as a loose network of friendly, supportive (one could read that as "unchallenging") venues throughout the country.

As Ale Rogers pointed out, there is a self-selection aspect to it as well. It certainly did not mean to portray the New York Historical Society as an "oppressed minority" suffering from "social segregation."

Readers' attention responses to this piece have really run the gamut from this welcome attention to detail to attributing assertions to the piece which were either not there or contrary to what I actually wrote.

In the end, I think Bell and Hogeland may be right that "rubber chicken circuit" may have been a better choice of metaphor. But this was a blog post and hence not something I spent weeks revising.

Alec Rogers said...

I agree that that historical audiences and NYRB readers constitute an oppressed minority, and that the metaphor ought not be taken too far. The notion that Wood needs to cling close to certain venues for safety is pretty far fetched; in fact it's likely his critics that would find themselves more likely to find themselves in such a need. I think your conclusion, that the audience was not one that would challenge the author to be a correct summary.

I did get Michael's point that it was a question of "friendly audiences" rather than something more racially evocative, which was why I had pressed him for clarification.

I never did any grad work in history, and personally I'm grateful to Wood for giving me a little bit of that level of sophistication in some of his writings. Most of the criticism is, I think, unfounded and the most virulent driven more by frustration that their agenda driven research doesn't have a hold on the educated public as it does in some corners of academia.

J. L. Bell said...

I noticed that some remarks about Michael's essay and the responses to it didn't offer due consideration to the impromptu nature of online writing and commenting. That's why I started my summary with how he'd later explained the impetus for the essay. It seemed like the best way to head off new readers' quick assumptions or interpretations.

But in that spirit of pushing through for the best expression, I do think "rubber chicken circuit" is simply a better metaphor for what Michael described. It's a small point I left to the end, though. (And I'm not sure I could have come up with that substitution on my own.)