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Culture Wars and Studying History (II)

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Abe_simpson

Gordon Wood is an esteemed historian of the American Revolution. He’s probably most famous for The Radicalism of the American Revolution, which was popular but not universally acclaimed due to the fact that the American Revolution was primarily radical only if you accept Gordon Wood’s rather stretched definition of the word “radical.” That Wood’s version of radicalism does not include black people or Native Americans or women or hardly anyone but elite white men is, to say the least, problematic. But Wood publishes widely, frequently writing long reviews of new books on the Revolution and Constitution in the New York Review of Books, editing volumes on the American Revolution for the Library of America, and contributing to many other elite publications.

Wood has found a new publishing outlet and that is The Weekly Standard. His discussion of his dissertation advisor Bernard Bailyn is little more than a cranky old white man screed against how new generations of historians talk about the past. He has a litany of complaints–too much race! too much gender! too much other countries! not enough big stories! historians trying to use the past for social change!–that for whatever merit (and I don’t think the complaints have much merit at all) they might have, basically come down to Gordon Wood believing the solution to these problems is seeing the past and writing about the past precisely in the way Gordon Wood sees the past and writes about the past. To say this is an unfortunate essay is a severe understatement.

Let’s break down a few passages here to elucidate the points.

In one of his essays, Bailyn quotes Isaiah Berlin’s reactions to American universities and American students during his visit to Harvard in the late 1940s. In contrast to Oxbridge, said Berlin, America’s universities and students were “painfully aware of the social and economic miseries of their society.” They found it hard to justify studying, say, the early Greek epic while the poor went hungry and blacks were denied fundamental rights. How, Berlin wondered, could disinterested scholarship, disinterested history-writing, flourish in such morally painful circumstances?

Nearly 70 years later, it has gotten worse. College students and many historians have become obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society. And this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history. The inequalities of race and gender now permeate much of academic history-writing, so much so that the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation’s past has had to turn to history books written by nonacademics who have no Ph.D.s and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars.

How can we write about history if we care about inequality! Don’t we know that inequality doesn’t have a history worth writing about!?!

And note that the “whole of the nation’s past” does not include race or gender; rather such subjects are the enemy of telling that whole. The whole of the nation’s past is the kind of big sweeping story of American elites that Gordon Wood writes about.

But a new generation of historians is no longer interested in how the United States came to be. That kind of narrative history of the nation, they say, is not only inherently triumphalist but has a teleological bias built into it. Those who write narrative histories necessarily have to choose and assign significance to events in terms of a known outcome, and that, the moral critics believe, is bound to glorify the nation. So instead of writing full-scale narrative histories, the new generation of historians has devoted itself to isolating and recovering stories of the dispossessed: the women kept in dependence; the American Indians shorn of their lands; the black slaves brought in chains from Africa. Consequently, much of their history is fragmentary and essentially anachronistic—condemning the past for not being more like the present. It has no real interest in the pastness of the past.

Yes, writing about race and gender comes from historians who are no longer interested in how the United States came to be. Because what could be relevant about race and gender in understanding this question? Now, Wood is defining “how the United States came to be” in a very specific way, i.e., the political, economic, and military decisions that literally created the United States during the Revolutionary and Constitutional periods. Once again, Wood completely dismisses the inequalities of that generation as essentially irrelevant for answering this question, instead saying that those who study those issues are telling “fragmentary and essentially anachronistic” stories. Yet one could easily lob the same charge as Wood for also telling a fragmentary, if not necessarily anachronistic, story that because historians “necessarily have to choose and assign significance to events in terms of a known outcome,” which counter to what Wood seems thinks, every single historian has to do. In his case, those choices have led him to ignore inequality and oppression entirely.

Not only does the history these moral reformers write invert the proportions of what happened in the past, but it is incapable of synthesizing the events of the past. It is inevitably partial, with little or no sense of the whole. If the insensitive treatment of women, American Indians, and African slaves is not made central to the story, then, for them, the story is too celebratory. Since these historians are not really interested in the origins of the nation, they have difficulty writing any coherent national narrative at all, one that would account for how the United States as a whole came into being.

This is of course ridiculous. It is entirely possible to tell a big narrative history centering the treatment of women, Native Americans, and slaves. It is not hard at all to create a coherent national narrative that centers on racism. That the United States is and always has been a white supremacist nation despite efforts by many people, including whites, to change that, is in fact a compelling national narrative. I will also remind Wood of one Howard Zinn, who certainly wrote a coherent national narrative that a lot of people love. That history might not celebrate America though–and that’s Wood’s problem with it

For many of them, the United States is no longer the focus of interest. Under the influence of the burgeoning subject of Atlantic history, which Bailyn’s International Seminar on the Atlantic World greatly encouraged, the boundaries of the colonial period of America have become mushy and indistinct. The William and Mary Quarterly, the principal journal in early American history, now publishes articles on mestizos in 16th-century colonial Peru, patriarchal rule in post-revolutionary Montreal, the early life of Toussaint Louverture, and slaves in 16th-century Castile. The journal no longer concentrates exclusively on the origins of the United States. Without some kind of historical GPS, it is in danger of losing its way.

Someone get the fainting couch. The leading journal in U.S. colonial history and many historians of the period have now realized that the United States doesn’t exist in a vacuum and that the rest of the world exists. Somehow this is a problem for Wood. Having not read the William and Mary Quarterly for a decade, I have to say that if these are the types of essays it is publishing, I may have to start reading it.

The essay, and Gordon Wood’s positions and writing more broadly, have led to several other good (and disparate) discussions. L.D. Burnett places Wood’s argument in the context of the decline of the academy and pokes fun at John Fea’s plea for all the lefty historians to quit making fun of Wood. Michael Hattam, in a piece on Wood that came out last month, discusses the historiographical transformations of the study of early America and notes that Wood is wrong that no one talks about political elites anymore–they just don’t talk about them in the glowing and often uncritical terms Wood can resort to. Instead, those elites are placed in the broader context of all the other people in the nation Wood never discusses. Eran Zelnik completely dismisses Wood’s complaints about presentism, noting correctly that everyone is a presentist and none more so than those who claim not to be since they are usually comfortable with the inequalities of society. The consensus historians of the postwar period loved the mantle of objectivity, but they were as influenced by their times as anyone else. Zelnik writes:

If Wood had done that—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. Instead, Wood seeks to throw sand in our eyes, and because our contemporary academic discourse does not allow us to assert that the present is and was the bottomline of any history that was ever written, we cannot have the kind of argument we should be having—a very political one.

Indeed. And I don’t think these questions of objectivity and taking passionate positions is something younger generations of historians really worry about. What power Wood has is not over the trajectory of American historiography today. His work is respected, but is not the only interpretation of the period that matters. His power is in reinforcing right-wing complaints about the study of history that we see in the Texas high school textbook debate or Oklahoma’s anti-Advanced Placement US History test bill. It’s within a broader national debate over whether we should celebrate the nation’s past or criticize it (of course, most professional historians do both but that’s not how conservatives see it). That such a famous and well-respected historian is contributing negatively to these issues is, well, sad.

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  • DrDick

    Nice reply to JOtto’s lame assertions in the previous thread. I would add that it is quite clear that the radical historians of the 60s-80s, who aggressively sought to include women, workers, the poor, people of color, and others previously ignored by historians won the intellectual war and we are the richer for it.

  • Murc

    So basically, yet another aging white writer doesn’t understand that being white isn’t the normal default and stories about non-white people aren’t exotic, fragmentary tales that lie alongside the true side history, but are in fact part of a holistic and complete understanding of history.

    It’s especially delicious that Wood levels the charge of “fragmentism” against others. It really is all about projection with these people, isn’t it?

    • He’s like the guy who had something smart and interesting to say but is pissed the conversation has moved on to other worthy subjects, because he’s not interested in learning from others as much as he wants others to learn from him.

      BTW, I have Empire of Liberty on my desk right now. He’s a great historian from whom one can learn a lot. But so do others who don’t play by his strict, confining rules.

      • AlanInSF

        If this guy had written Seinfeld, Patrick Warburton would have been the only character.

        • I might still have watched it. He was my favorite character.

  • L.D. Burnett

    Erik, thanks for the link to my post.

    FWIW, I was serious as a heart attack in my criticism of Fea for parroting and promoting Wood’s pseudo-populist anti-academy rhetoric. They should both know better.

    I suppose that Fea has his ideological reasons for wanting to be an outsider taking potshots at the secular academy. But why any academic, whatever his/her institutional affiliation, thinks there is anything to gain from maligning scholarship in the humanities is beyond me. Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.

    • Aimai

      I put this up over there, under one of your posts:

      If Gordon Wood wants nothing but a history of great men in a great nation blessed by their great god he is at liberty to write that story over and over and over again. Its not history but hagiography. And there are plenty of people who will pay him to do it. But he might want to lay off lecturing everyone else about it. History as a profession is not, or ought not to be, identical to the feebleminded heirs of long dead aristocrats penning exculpatory memoirs of great grandpa’s doings. Let us have it, warts and all.

      • Hogan

        What Wood wants is classic origin stories–i.e., superhero comic books. Which I have no problem with, but I prefer them with pictures, ideally in bright primary colors.

        • J. Otto Pohl

          In Kyrgyzstan they sing it over a period of many days.

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epic_of_Manas

          • Lee Rudolph

            The Hands of Fate guy is a Kyrgyz culture-hero???

            • Bruce B.

              +1 shot of endless driving through dull countryside.

            • Noah S. McKinnon

              That’s Manos.

              (. . . I realize I should let this one slide, but considering that that’s why the title “The Hands of Fate” is stupid on multiple levels . . .)

              • Bruce B.

                One of the guys in my MST watching gang of those days joked about doing a remake, to be titled Hands: Los Manos del Destino.

        • Given the illustrated claptrap I was forced to read as a child – including drawings of Washington chopping down a tree and Lincoln splitting a log – I would say your wish has come true. I particularly liked the part where Aaron Burr’s ability to cloud men’s minds caused Hamilton’s hubris to self-destuct, taking half the Weehawken waterfront with it in a ball of radioactive smoke.

          • Hogan

            Steve Ditko’s finest work, that.

      • L.D. Burnett

        Thanks for the comment aimai. I replied there.

        Bottom line: Wood’s work has been important, and can stand on its own without him punching down and throwing “academics” under the bus for the readers of the *Weekly Standard.* For shame!

        • MAJeff

          him punching down and throwing “academics” under the bus for the readers of the *Weekly Standard.* For shame!

          Maybe he’s just a white supremacist asshole doing what white supremacist assholes do and publishing in the Weekly Standard.

          • Aimai

            Its really more like common or garden variety old man smell. I mean, I hate to say it but its something that does happen to people as they age if they can’t do it as gracefully as Oliver Sacks does in his op ed/memento mori today. Some of these older people just can’t stand the thought that younger scholars are going to do things differently.

            • I’ve long though that, excluding those with dementia, old people’s personalities tend to be exaggerated versions of who they were in their prime. See Cosby, W., for one data point. Sack, O. is another.

              • And the funny part of mentioning Cosby is his long-ago line about cocaine:

                “Why do you use cocaine?”
                “It intensifies your personality”
                “But what if you’re an asshole?”

        • rea

          Can’t resist quoting this artifact of popular culture:

          Good Will Hunting
          written by Matt Damon & Ben Affleck

          Clark (Scott Winters): I was just hoping you might give me some insight into the evolution of the market economy in the southern colonies. My contention is that prior to the Revolutionary War, the economic modalities, especially in the southern colonies, could most aptly be characterized as agrarian precapitalism…
          Chuckie (Ben Affleck): Let me tell you something, all right…
          Will: (interrupting) Of course that is your contention…
          Clark: Hold on a second…
          Will: You’re a first year grad student. You just got finished reading some Marxian Historian, Pete Garrison probably. You’re gonna’ be convinced of that until next month when you get to James Lemon, then you’re gonna’ be talking about how the economies of Virginia and Pennsylvania were entrepreneurial and capitalist way back in 1740. That’s gonna’ last until next year, you’re gonna’ be in here regurgitating Gordon Wood, talking about ya know, the Pre-Revolutionary utopia and the capital forming effects of military mobilization.
          Clark: Well, as a matter of fact I won’t because Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social…
          Will: (interrupting) Wood drastically… Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social distinctions predicated upon wealth, especially inherited wealth. You got that from Vickers. “Work in Essex County”, page 98, right? Yeah, I read that too. Were you going to plagiarize the whole thing for us? Do you have any thoughts of your own on this matter? Or do you, is that you thing, you come into a bar, you read some obscure passage, and then pretend, you pawn it off as your own, as your own idea just to impress some girl and embarrass my friend? You see, the sad thing about a guy like you is that in 50 years, you’re gonna start doing some thinking on your own and you’re gonna come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life. One: don’t do that. And two: you dropped a 150 grand on a fuckin’ education you could have gotten for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library.
          Clark: Yeah, but I will have the degree, and you’ll be serving my kids fries at a drive thru on our way to a skiing trip.
          Will: (laughing) Yeah, maybe, but at least I won’t be unoriginal.

          • Hogan

            In the episode, “The Gang Reignites the Rivalry,” of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Charlie Kelly, trying to emulate Good Will Hunting, accuses a group of students of “regurgitating Gaud and Wood.”

            • timb

              We really need a “Like” button on this website and, especially one for the folks at Sunny for not only making a funny joke, but for making fun of Matt Damon’s accent.

              You like apples?

  • Hogan

    The inequalities of race and gender now permeate much of academic history-writing, so much so that the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation’s past has had to turn to history books written by nonacademics who have no Ph.D.s and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars.

    Yeah, Professor Emeritus Gordon S. Wood (b. 1934), tell that young non-academic punk Emeritus Professor Daniel Walker Howe (b. 1937) where to get off!

    • Heh. My wife’s Valentine’s Day gift for when I’m finished with Empire of Liberty. Empire of Liberty is great (and I found other works of his valuable), but in terms of tone and emphasis, What Hath God Wrought looks more interesting.

      As an aside, the Oxford History of the United States is terrific. I’m just now reading the 19th century volumes, but the Kennedy and Patterson volumes are great.

      • Captain Haddock

        Agreed wholeheartedly. Freedom from Fear is great; What Hath God Wrought is fantastic. I am slowly working through Empire of Liberty, but I got sidetracked by Nixonland and the new Stalin biography by Kotkin. My great frustration is this (from Wikipedia):

        A volume written by H. W. Brands covering Gilded Age America — Leviathan: America Comes of Age, 1865–1900 — was also to be published as part of the series, but was withdrawn in 2006[4] and published outside the Oxford History series in October 2010 as American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900.

        Once again, an authoritative history (with all applicable caveats that come with that name) of that era escapes us. American Colossus was okay, but they made the right decision not to include it in the Oxford History of the United States.

        • I recently saw Ta-Nehisi Coates raving about What God Hath Wrought, and as a fellow autodidact with some of the same interests, I generally accept his judgement on books without reservation.

          • That was the book that got me hooked on the Oxford series, because it took a period that I gave not one shit about, and made it interesting.

            Agree the Brands was too light for the series. He seems like a biographer 1st & foremost, which made American Colossus quite readable and very unsuitable for Oxford’s series.

            • Scott Lemieux

              What Hath God Wrought is a phenomenal book.

              • Piquoiseau

                Yeah, I think I’m probably being too hard on Empire of Liberty because Howe did such a good job of integrating the national political stuff with the social history, and presents such a nuanced picture of how the rhetoric of egalitarianism in practice furthered the ideology of white supremacy. Wood suffers in comparison (although I think the other two Oxford volumes I’ve read, Battle Cry of Freedom and Freedom from Fear were also better). What Hath God Wrought easily has the best title of any book in the series, as well.

                I received all the Oxford volumes as a gift, and have been reading them in order of my interest in the period covered. It irks me considerably that there aren’t yet volumes on Reconstruction, the gilded age, or World War I. I feel like I’ve already read quite extensively on the post-WWII era, and I have no desire at all to relive the 90s and 00s.

                • timb

                  Gordon is boring and Howe and McPherson are not….

                  I could provide more simple one sentence reviews of phenomenal scholarship if anyone is interested.

        • Oh, RE Brands, he seems to me the historians equivalent to Prince or Ryan Adams, putting out an album every few weeks. I know some people have done it (Peter Gay, for example), but it seems hard to every year write a new book on a subject on which you have not already published extensively, if at all, and not have the book slagged as shoddy or incomplete work.

          • Captain Haddock

            I think that comparison does more violence to Prince than to Brands.

          • mark f

            Then who is the historian Rob Pollard?

        • Romanes Eunt Domus

          Richard White is working on a volume on Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, provisionally titled The Long Crisis.

          • upstate_cyclist

            That’s is wonderful to hear, for “Railroaded” is amazing and an engaging read despite its density.

    • timb

      You know, at the end of Battle Cry of Freedom, James McPherson lovely book, he too laments that academic historians are so removed from narrative history that the general work of educating the public is left to non-academics.

      Now, I haven’t gone to read Professor Wood’s condemnation, but the critique is a battle that rages about history ever since the 60’s, when battles and leaders became markedly less important than societal factors and intellectual movements. As a bored lawyer/amateur I sure prefer the former to the latter, but that’s cause I’m lazy

  • Well this makes me nervous now, because I liked his Empire of Liberty volume for Oxford’s US history series, and now I wonder how terrible I am for overlooking rampant sexism racism etc. in it. I had thought he at least covered the bases (that series tends to be thorough). Maybe his grad students wrote the icky nonwhite/nonmale parts.

    • Joe_JP

      Maybe his grad students wrote the icky nonwhite/nonmale parts.

      any bad stuff in legal opinions are the clerks’ fault too

      • Richard Hershberger

        This is in much the same way that any time a lawyer blows a deadline, it is his secretary’s fault.

  • Piquoiseau

    I’m currently working through Wood’s Empire of Liberty, and it comes to me as no surprise that he should come out as this sort of self-styled traditionalist crank. He writes sympathetically of the “middling” northerners — artisans, mechanics, and small tradesmen, white and male all — who supported the Jeffersonian Republican party, while gliding over the fact that the base of this same party was the southern slaveholding class, and basically never talking about women, slaves, or free blacks. It’s quite disappointing, as I had assumed that as Bailyn’s student he would have internalized some of his mentor’s arguments. It has been 15 years since I read him, but I recall Bailyn being much better.

    • rea

      Yeah, I’m mystified as to how Wood can start out by praising Bailyn:

      In one of the hitherto-unpublished essays, entitled “History and the Creative Imagination,” Bailyn defines the modern creative historian as someone who has enriched “a whole area of history by redirecting it from established channels into new directions, unexplored directions, so that what was once vague or altogether unperceived is suddenly flooded with light, and the possibilities of a new way of understanding are suddenly revealed.”

      . . . but end up complaining about other historians who do much the same thing.

      • wjts

        I was perplexed as to how he could praise “the remarkable range and depth of [Bailyn’s] scholarship,” which focused in part on “the sense of large-scale systems of events in the past operating over not just nations but continents and oceans” and then criticize William and Mary Quarterly for publishing articles of remarkable range and depth that work to make sense of large-scale systems of events in the past operating over not just nations but continents and oceans.

  • J. Otto Pohl

    Actually I think the not enough big stories is a problem in historical studies. The Nation State remains overwhelmingly the unit of historical analysis even with the development of Atlantic history. I am reading a lot of Patrick Manning now who is an African historian concerned with issues of world history. One of the things that I actually admire of a lot of the Marxist orientated schoalrs like Andre Frank, Walter Rodney, or Immanuel Wallerstein has been their broader geographical approach.

    • Matt_L

      yeah, I agree with you regional and comparative history is due for a renaissance. There also needs to be more narrative history broadly construed. And thats why writers as ideologically diverse and dated as Howard Zinn and AJP Taylor still find audiences outside the academy and inside.

      • J. Otto Pohl

        There is an awful lot of resistance by academics to comparative history. Not in principle, but in most practical applications. George Fredrickson pioneered the field and it hasn’t advanced as much as one would have thought since his death. Regional history has less opposition and you can do comparative history within regional history. In fact some people doing comparative history within regional history deny that they are doing the first and that it is just a byproduct of the second. This is Snyder’s position on The Bloodlands.

        • George Fredrickson pioneered the field

          No knock against Fredrickson, but were they alive, that would probably be news to Barrington Moore, Charles Tilly, Fernand Braudel, Erik Hobsbawm and a bunch of other people who were doing comparative history at the same time or before Fredrickson, and who’d probably say the field was pioneered in the 19th century.

          • J. Otto Pohl

            Well neither Moore or Tilly were actually historians in terms of their training and tenure. I think they were both sociologists. More than that I think there is something considerably different between Moore’s Lord and Peasant and Fredrickson’s work. Moore had a large number of case studies and he relied a lot on secondary sources. He also worked within what I would call a political science paradigm rather than an historical one. Fredrickson’s work on the differences between US and South African white supremacy is quite different in being in depth, huge in volume, and using lots of primary source materials, and using an historical framework. Braudel was regional rather than comparative history as I envision it. Hobsbawm did some comparative history although most of his work seems focused on Europe. At any rate it is hard to think of anybody today doing anything like Fredrickson or Hobsbawm.

            • So Fredrickson pioneered the field of doing comparative history like Fredrickson did comparative history, which is different from how others did comparative history before him. I guess I don’t have any objection to that.

              • J. Otto Pohl

                How about he was one of the most important pioneers? We can throw in the others. I like Moore a lot, but I think his argument and approach are more suited to political science than history. But, there is nobody today doing the type of stuff either Fredrickson or Moore did.

                • How about just making sweeping generalizations and then dismissing all common sense objections to your sweeping generalization by falling back on idiosyncratic and picayune definitions to avoid admitting you made a sweeping and inaccurate generalization?

                  Oh, and how about ignoring people like, oh, say, Michael Mann.

                • J. Otto Pohl

                  Sweeping generalizations like Dr. Dick’s claim that all conservatives for centuries have always sought to completely eliminate the historical study of non-whites? Or maybe his claim that there was never any racial discrimination in the Russian Empire or USSR or Russian Federation against Chechens and other Caucasian peoples?

            • Hogan

              R. R. Palmer, The Age of Democratic Revolutions?

              It seems like comparisons of slavery in the US and Brazil are pretty common.

              • “No note on books about the constitutionalism of the Revolution would be complete without mentioning R. R. Palmer’s magnificent study, The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political history of Europe and America 1760-1800.”–Gordon Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, p 627

                • Hogan

                  And the circle . . . is complete.

  • Bitter Scribe

    Never heard of this guy, but your description of him reminds me a little of Robert Leckie, who got increasingly cranky and reactionary (as well as lazy and sloppy) as he got older.

  • joe from Lowell

    College students and many historians have become obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society. And this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history. The inequalities of race and gender now permeate much of academic history-writing, so much so that the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation’s past has had to turn to history books written by nonacademics who have no Ph.D.s and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars.

    I find this bragging unseemly. Surely, the American history academy has its faults, too.

  • Scizzy

    I wish I could link to David Waldstreicher’s brutal review of Wood’s dreadful Empire of Liberty, because it’s about as thorough a takedown of a major historical work that you can read in a journal of 1500 word reviews like the American Historical Review. Wood’s Creation of the American Republic is a titanic book, the culmination of the work of a number of great historians of that era and he will be rightfully remembered for that. Having heard him at conferences and having read his various books since, it’s a shame that he has so little else left to say. Bailyn, for all the flaws of The Barbarous Years (that Wood doesn’t understand that scholars have criticized the content rather than the length of his sections on Native Americans is bizarre), has at least made real and diverse contributions to the understanding of American history in recent years. Wood has just been repackaging these screeds in less and less artful terms for a while now.

    And, Erik, thanks for getting me to click on this Weekly Standard article. I was rewarded with a popup giving me info that “FEMA doesn’t want me to know!” I, in fact, never would have known.

    • Ah, that sounds like the review I need to read, then. Thanks!

    • I read Bailyn’s The People of British North America not long after having read Alan Taylor’s American Colonies, and it was like they were writing about different continents in different centuries. Bailyn’s book was interesting for the origins and settlement patterns of European colonists, but other than a couple asides here and there it’s like the “peopling” of the continent didn’t really get going until the seventeenth century. [I’m not an academic so this may been embarrassingly obvious to people who know the field, but Taylor’s book reshaped my fuzzy notions of European colonialism and rivalry in North America by emphasizing the role of the native tribes, and how their rivalries, overlaid with the European rivalries, ensured some stability until the British finally defeated the French and got Canada, at which point the Native Americans were utterly screwed. I’m kind of embarrassed how little I understood such a fundamental factor in the growth of the British colonies and the nearly immediate surge of white settlers over the Appalachians after 1763, and how the absence of the “external enemy” led to the distrust and conflict between the British and the colonists.]

      • Hogan

        Francis Jennings has some very readable books about French/English/Indian relations up through the “French and Indian” (ha) War. The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire and Empire of Fortune are the ones I can think of offhand.

        • Thanks. The Chicago public library is great, maybe they’ll have one or both of those. If not, my wife can probably get them from her university.

          • Hogan

            They have both.

            In other news, you should so read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

            • What leads you to say that?

              [Confession: I have a copy, it’s been on my shelves forever]

              • Hogan

                Chicago Public Library selected it for their One Book, One City event.

              • Marek

                It’s fantastic.

        • Manny Kant

          Fred Anderson’s book on the Seven Years War (which I’ve admittedly not read all of) is kind of cool for trying to show how Frederick the Great invading Saxony is ultimately the result of shifts in the balance of power among various Indian groups in the Ohio Valley.

        • rea

          “The French and Indian and British and Prussian and Austrian and Saxon and Russian and Swedish and Spanish and Other Indian War”

          • timb

            The first World War, started by the Father of our Country.*

            PS I love that line and I’m not changing it

      • DrDick

        It is also worth noting that the Indians in immediate contact with the colonists, especially those west of the Appalachians, outnumbered them by a significant margin. For many of them, the 1750s marked their population nadir.

    • This post from the Junto blog & its comments may be worth a look (you prof’l historians can tell me if otherwise).

      Radicalism was an attempt at synthesis as is his most recent work, the long-awaited volume in The Oxford History of the United States series, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815. Academic reviews, as they were for Radicalism, were pointed, even harsh. However, the reviews of Empire of Liberty by John L. Brooke in The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 67, no. 3 (2010): 549-57 and Nancy Isenberg in the Journal of the Early Republic 32, no. 2 (2012): 261-78 exemplify how many historians of the generation (or two) following Wood’s see him. Brooke sees Wood’s work as “rooted in Bancroft’s celebratory-Progressive historiographical imperative,” i.e., teleological beyond repair and unabashedly triumphalist. Isenberg attacks his tone as becoming increasingly “preachier in trumpeting the American dream.” They seem to see Wood as having sold his academic soul for a position as the popular prophet of the founding so many Americans want, i.e., a founding devoid of inner conflict, one that removes the founders’ culpability and, therefore, the readers’ guilt over the Indian removal, slavery, and race and gender relations. These critiques are, in and of themselves, wholly valid criticisms of Wood’s work, but there is a harshness to them that is quite rare in academic reviews, in early American history at least, and it would seem to be revealing when a senior historian is described with the use of “Bancroft” as an adjective in the field’s two biggest journals.

      • MDrew

        These critiques are, in and of themselves, wholly valid criticisms of Wood’s work, but there is a harshness to them that is quite rare in academic reviews, in early American history at least, and it would seem to be revealing when a senior historian is described with the use of “Bancroft” as an adjective in the field’s two biggest journals.

        It’s a little hard to follow the thrust here. Valid… but…? Wholly valid but… also especially valid because so harsh? Or wholly valid but… maybe a little bit questionably valid too because so harsh? Revealing of…?

        What exactly is going on here?

  • fledermaus

    If Wood had done that—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.

    Livy called, he wants his shtick back.

    • Aimai

      Reminds me of what the Italian academics said to a Classics professor friend of mine who went to Rome for a year. “Your Livy is not our Livy.” I have no idea what it means but it has to be the put down of all time.

      • This bit about Moses Finley may be the underlying idea?

        Classics, he would often say, is not a subject. Ancient history is a job for historians, ancient philosophy for philosophers, ancient literature for those whose concerns are literary. Classics is not a subject.

        • burritoboy

          and that’s why Finley wrote a book declaring that Xenophon’s Oeconomicus is a book on towel folding.

      • Noah S. McKinnon

        A Russian Studies professor of mine in undergrad said that she knew a diplomat who tried to quote-drop Fyodor Tyuchtev (“Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone”) to show his fascination with and knowledge of Russian literature.

        He got the reply: “You can quote Tyuchtev, but you don’t understand him. He is one of ours.”

  • joe from Lowell

    I think a movement could be radical in the 1700s and still only include relatively rich white men.

    I’d call the Magna Carta radical, and that only dealt with titled nobility.

    Radical is a moving target, entirely context-dependent.

    • mark f

      Yeah. I read Radicalism of the American Revolution fairly recently and Wood’s pretty clear on that point.

      • timb

        I wouldn’t have sided with the Founders. Sam Adams and his ilk were war-mongering goons (I think I would have thought) and we’re all British and can compromise. Those guys were out on the fringe of their society

  • petesh

    In contrast to Oxbridge, said Berlin, America’s universities and students were “painfully aware of the social and economic miseries of their society.” … Nearly 70 years later, it has gotten worse.

    Or, of course, better. I haven’t been in close touch with Oxford since I graduated in 1970, but the implied criticism (or, ahem, praise; OK, assessment) of Oxbridge was accurate, in my experience, and a contributing factor to my emigration.

  • Manny Kant

    I always feel like cranky old man bits about the decline of history seem largely to derive out of the fact that reading monographs is largely boring and dispiriting, and probably something you get less and less patience for as you get older. But this seems to manifest not as just a decision by the cranky old historian that they don’t have time to read monographs anymore, but as some kind of philosophical rejection of whatever kind of monograph is currently trendy.

    • Manny Kant

      (Obviously, a big part of it is also that the people writing these monographs are also trashing Wood’s big synthetic Oxford History of the US volume, which I’m sure hurts his ego)

  • matt w

    This is a friend of a friend story, but I had a friend of a friend who had Bailyn on her undergrad thesis committee. She’d written about Southern women during the Civil War or something like that. Bailyn’s first question was “Why aren’t there any men in your thesis?”

    So I’m not stunned to see someone making this kind of argument as a tribute to Bailyn.

  • D.N. Nation

    So instead of writing full-scale narrative histories, the new generation of historians has devoted itself to isolating and recovering stories of the…

    Emphasis mine. Isn’t that the point of deep historical analysis?

    What, should we just consider the African-American experience like they beamed in via teleporter and give it no further examination?

    • “We gave John Hope Franklin tenure, what more do you want?”

    • Aimai

      Aliens settled my country! Chariots of the Gods!

    • Gwen

      I think he also forgets that these small stories are being told about somebody’s great-grandmother or someone’s great-great-uncle. Disregarding all concerns of social justice, writing these stories down does a creditable service to the millions of Americans who aren’t direct descendants of a handful of a few patricians.

  • Gwen

    Erik, you pretty much nailed it. If patriarchy, white privilege, and class struggle aren’t “big stories” then I honestly don’t know what is.

    I really appreciated “The Radicalism of the American Revolution” by the way, but you’re right, it has blind spots.

    • Gwen

      OK, I read the essay. I really don’t get how a smart person could have so much cognitive dissonance. The part that stuck out for me is the part where he complains that historians dislike triumphalist, teleological stories of “how America came to be” and then goes on to complain about how contemporaries seem to fixated on present problems instead of treating the “past as the past.”

      Inherent in the notion of a story of how something “came to be” is a concept of what that something now is; “to be” is present tense. Anyone telling an origin story is going to be invested in the here-and-now; if not, why tell the story in the first place? Who cares if Superman was born on Krypton, if Superman has no super powers?

      Wood’s real complaint – which I admit is probably so obvious that I am wasting your time by writing this – is that people are talking about current problems, thus implying that America is today not a perfect state of conservatarian bliss.

      At any rate, there are also a lot more small stories in history, than there are big stories. You can’t keep thousands of graduate students and junior faculty gainfully employed if you task them all with re-writing the narrative of America’s beginnings. Somebody has to go write up the small stories. And if that somebody does a bang-up job, then by all means reward them with publication.

      • Linnaeus

        At any rate, there are also a lot more small stories in history, than there are big stories. You can’t keep thousands of graduate students and junior faculty gainfully employed if you task them all with re-writing the narrative of America’s beginnings. Somebody has to go write up the small stories. And if that somebody does a bang-up job, then by all means reward them with publication.

        What’s more, if you’re going to write a synthesis, you need components to synthesize. You get better big stories when you have more and better small stories to put together.

        • MAJeff

          What’s more, if you’re going to write a synthesis, you need components to synthesize.

          What more do you need than the biographies of great men? Synthesize those, and you’ve got a narrative!

          • rea

            I had a strange dream a couple of nights ago that was almost on-topic. I somehow found myself back in the 15th Century, sitting in a very elaborate tent, drinking red wine (Burgundy, of course) with Charles the Bold/Rash, and talking with him about the philosophy of history. I was trying to maintain the position that history tends to the be product of mass movements, but he insisted that history is made by great men. Not a bad looking guy, incidentally–I remember thinking he would be kind of cute, if he were a bit less arrogant.

            Anyway, trumpets sounded an alarm, and he rushed from the tent (I tried to tell him to wait and armor up, but he was not the type to listen). He jumped on a big horse, and almost immediately was hacked to pieces by a bunch of Swiss guys with halberds.

            So, I won the argument.

            • Hogan

              Lucky you. My dreams are always about Eugene the Involuntarily Celibate. I hate that guy.

              • rea

                I have been having some very literary dreams lately, although I always hate it when they end with someone being hacked to pieces.

                I’m alone on the stage at Carnegie Hall last night, before a packed house. I stand up and recite (I remember it word-for-word):

                The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
                And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold,
                When what to my wondering eyes did appear,
                But a miniature sleigh, and 8 tiny reindeer,
                So I sprang to the saddle and Joris and he,
                I galloped, Dirk galloped, we galloped all three,
                Addercop! Wonderpets! We’re on our way!
                To help a baby bird and save the day.
                We’re not too big and we’re not too tough,
                But damned be him who cries, “Hold! Enough!”
                [tumultuous applause]

                • Lee Rudolph

                  Sir, I salute your dreaming self. Bravissimo!

                • wjts

                  That’s terrific, but is it pedantic to point out that the lines are “I sprang to the stirrup” and “And damned be him who first cries, ‘Hold! Enough!'”?

                • Yes, it is.

              • Mine are mostly about a baby crying. And weirdly, when I wake up, there’s a baby crying.

            • Manny Kant

              This feels like an unwritten vignette from some enormous nineteenth century novel.

            • Mellano

              So Lord Charles started out on Burgundy, then hit the harder stuff?

      • An irony here is the Bailyn-led Republican revolution in early American historiography is based on the idea that the big stories of political theory–Locke mostly–are actually not that important in understanding the Revolution, what is important are mid-18th century English pamphlets and pamphleteers largely unknown in the 20th century.

  • LeeEsq

    Wood’s thesis makes sense, as Joe from Lowell points out, if you consider whether something or not is radical during its’ times. The American Revolution did represent a rather big break from the dominant thought in the Western world at the time. As at least as the 1760s, many of the people who would go onto lead the American Revolution would take about King George III with a sort of awe that many of us would find weird and troubling. By the time of the Revolution, the people behind the Revolution realized they could get along perfectly fine without a king or any sort of hereditary leadership element in society. The fee tail, one of the oldest forms of land ownership in the common law, was abolished.

    By our standards or even 19th century standards, the American Revolution wasn’t radical but by 18th century standards it was.

    • Yes, but the Founding Fathers who Wood so admires also undermined actual radicalism that was happening on the state and local level.

      • LeeEsq

        I admit that I am not aware of what was happening at the proto-state/local level because the American Revolution is not one of my primary areas of interest. However, keeping things under control in any revolution is sometimes for the best. I’m not sure America would have been better if we went through something like the French and Latin Americans did a little latter. We might have ended up with a home grown monarch or worse.

        • Eric Foner’s Tom Paine and Revolutionary America paints a good portrait. A lot of people in the Constitutional Convention were having a bit of a freakout over the fact that Pennsylvania just created a unicameral legislature with nearly universal white male suffrage and might start taxing property, for example.

      • In Empire of Liberty he sort of admits that, or at least says they cut the state legislatures off from doing things that for the most part things we’d like. So, it’s implied. And he takes kind of a neutral position on debt, pointing out that “debtors” weren’t just poor farmers, they were also (though he doesn’t use the word) capitalists, who would borrow to invest so they could turn a profit.

      • joe from Lowell

        Yes, but the Founding Fathers who Wood so admires also undermined actual radicalism that was happening on the state and local level.

        So, sort of like the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution/Civil War.

        A nation run by a collection or hundreds of thousands of local workers councils would have been even more radical than a centrally planned Marxist-Lenninist State. Granted. Still, that doesn’t make Marxist-Lenninism non-radical.

      • Gwen

        The Revolution was pretty much the 18th Century Obama.

        It got a lot of people’s hopes up, because now America was all shiny and new and different.

        Nobody had decided what exactly all this wonderful new freedom-y stuff would be good for. Opinions ranged from “let’s have our own feudal monarchy” to “I’ll be damned if I pay a whiskey tax” to “maybe we can end slavery” to “howbout we overthrow the landowners and establish communism.”

        Needless to say, a lot of people were kind of disappointed when the Founding Fathers gave us competent, moderate administration instead of fulfilling all of our wildest left-wing fantasies.

    • rea

      Except that Great Britain had done the whole “Republic” thing 120 or so years before. This was not a new debate in 1760.

      • LeeEsq

        It ended up being more of a military dictatorship than a Republic and it only lasted for ten years. It failed and the British decided in favor of monarchy of some sort at the point.

      • burritoboy

        If you’re going to point to the UK as a republic, there were other then-contemporary examples, such as Venice and Lubeck, which had been without hereditary monarchs for many centuries (both were run by aristocratic councils – Venice had an “elected” non-hereditary monarch as well). The difficulty was that the proposed new American state wasn’t a city-state or even anything like one.

        That’s where the new state was breaking convention – it was always thought possible to have a republican city-state, but not possible to have such a very large area be a republic.

        • Ben in VA

          The only, contemporary exception to that I can think of was the United Provinces. While not nearly large as the US of course the Dutch Republic was more than a city-state. It also served as an example of a contemporary state with a good deal of religious freedom.

          • Hogan

            It was also a federation of separate (but not independent) states.

          • Manny Kant

            I believe that contemporary opinion was largely pretty down on the Dutch, due to the fact that by the late eighteenth century it was a monarchy in all but name. IIRC, many of the “republican” officials were basically just appointed by the Stadtholder.

            • Zamfir

              The quasi-monarchy was a fairly recent phenomenon though, dating from 1747. The Netherlands had at that point been oscillating between republic and crypto-monarchy for 2 centuries(and would go through some more cycles yet)

              Not a guaranteed example that a stable republic would work, but close enough to suggest the possibility given some tweaks.

              Also, when it comes to size: the early United States had about the same population as the contemporary Netherlands. Of course, the early USAsians were planning for ambitious growth, but we shouldn’t project the future size of the US back on them.

      • joe from Lowell

        Except that Great Britain had done the whole “Republic” thing 120 or so years before. This was not a new debate in 1760.

        And the Paris Commune predated the Russian Revolution by how long?

        Does that make the latter non-radical?

  • dporpentine

    Like complaints about English departments not foffing off to Shakespeare with adequate intensity, these kids-today things about history seem so purely pro forma that I never quite understand why anyone bothers writing them. I mean, it’s not as if Wood seems to marshal any specifics to support his case. It’s just shaking his fist at the clouds–embarrassing, certainly, but also pointless. (Other than, as has already been mentioned, serving to further the usual narrative that universities are essentially post-apocalyptic landscapes created by political correctness.)

  • William Hunting

    Eh, nevermind

  • MDrew

    I fully agree with the main point here on this unfortunate essay.

    But this

    That Wood’s version of radicalism does not include black people or Native Americans or women or hardly anyone but elite white men is, to say the least, problematic.

    is just blindingly point-missing if not just outright incorrect (I can’t quite decide). I’m not even saying you have to agree that he makes his case. But I don; think there is any question that Wood at least manages to describe a genuine radicalism that, if his evidence were deemed accurate and adequate, would mean a real societal transformation from what was before to what came after. I don;t think it;s true that this “does not include black people or Native Americans or women or hardly anyone but elite white men,” but even if it were, it wouldn’t follow that no radicalism had been described.

    It might not have been radical enough for you – who argues that th Revolution was in its own time, radical enough to be thought to have established a broadly just society, anyway? But that doesn;t mean it wasn’t radical.

    It’s not only your word, radical. I suppose “problematic” is the quintessential low bar of academic critique words. Sure, it’s “problematic” because it doesn’t announce in the title that the Revolution wasn’t radical enough to have emancipated blacks or women or set the U.S. on a path to treat Native Americans fairly. Problematic here equals “not exactly the story I would have chosen to tell.” But that doesn’t mean that it’s not a correct thesis – that the Revolution didn’t in the event usher in radical changes to the political and social structure of the American colonies/states.

  • CJColucci

    Even though my particular historical interest is precisely in the maneuverings of elite white guys, how they did what they did, why they did it, and what constraints they worked under, I find all this new-fangled work focusing on other than elite white guys invaluable in deepening my understanding of my rather old-fashioned concerns. It’s true that old-fashioned elite white guy stuff is easier to work into a coherent narrative that non-specialists will buy and read because we’ve been doing it for so long, and other narratives will take a higher order of artistry. Integrating both perspectives is tricky, too, though Howe pulls it off beautifully in What Hath God Wrought? But how does this count as criticism?
    And what are the up-and-coming scholars supposed to do? I’ve been reading about the elite white guys doing big stuff for so long that I’m finding historians running out of fresh insights (other than those informed by the newer history) and repeating themselves. Younger scholars just have to look elsewhere if they want to make any kind of contribution to knowledge.

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