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Culture Wars and Studying History (II)



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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