Thursday, February 19, 2015

Still fighting the American Revolution

Gordon S. Wood
To the extent that I follow the ever-vigorous field of American colonial history, I've been aware of Gordon S. Wood as the author of major works on the founding of the American republic and, maybe more, as a prolific and thoughtful reviewer of American history titles in liberal journals such as the New York Review of Books and the New Republic.

So there seemed to be something more going on when I found Wood (age 81) writing for the very conservative Weekly Standard a review of a new work by his mentor Bernard Bailyn (age 92 -- these guys do go on producing forever) that is also an attack on just about everybody else among Americanist historians -- and issued in a very "kids today!" tone of voice.

Turns out there is a lot of history to this historiographical spat.  As an intellectual historian focussing on the ideas and philosophies of the American Founders, Wood has always been looked at askance by historians who emphasize class conflict, slavery, aboriginals, women, and the whole social history project, and who doubt or criticize Wood for his alleged lack of interest in such issues. Add to that the fact that Wood turned years ago from new academic research to successful trade-market generalist works (sometimes derided, apparently, as "Founders Chic"), and you can see motives for younger Americanists to start to criticize.

So even as Wood wrote books like The Radicalism of the American Republic and reviews like a very positive one of Annette Gordon-Reed's very unworshipful analysis of Thomas Jefferson's intimate relations with his slave Sally Hemings, he was also beginning to be defined as a rather traditional celebrator of the great and exceptional American Republic. The American history blog The Junto laid a lot of this out a couple of years ago.

Now, praising a book of essays on historiography by Bailyn, Wood comes back at his critics in a review pointedly titled "History in Context":
It’s as if academics have given up trying to recover an honest picture of the past and have decided that their history-writing should become simply an instrument of moral hand-wringing.  
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.   
As a contribution to a debate among scholars, it could seem like a point worth discussion. Published in the Weekly Standard, surrounded by promos for paleo-conservative seminars and how-to-kill-Obamacare strategizing, it sound more like a new front culture war. Bridges are burning.
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