Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Gordon Wood's Review of Jill Lepore's Recent Book

I do not subscribe to the New York Review of Books.  As a result, I cannot read Gordon Wood's review of Jill Lepore's The White of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History in its entirety. But from what I have been able to read, it is clear that Wood does not like the book.  He accuses Lepore of mocking Americans for turning to the founders for political guidance in the present.

Note: I finished Lepore's book last month and enjoyed it, but I have not had the time to write anything intelligent about it yet. 

J.L. Bell of Boston 1775 has started a Facebook page dedicated to discussing this review.  William Hogeland of Hysteriography has also entered the fray, calling Wood's review "fantastically, even goofily, unfair."

I need to read this review.  I am actually tempted to shell out the six bucks the NYRB is asking for access.

12 comments:

Paul Harvey said...

John: I emailed you the review so you can read it. The last third or so of the review raises very interesting points about the relationship of history and memory, and has an interesting story about Bernard Bailyn to boot. If the whole essay was just that, fine. The first two-thirds, unfortunately, is just a flat-out misrepresentation of the book. If I were to give students an example of how not to review a book, I might start with that part.

John Fea said...

Thanks, Paul! I hope to post on this soon.

John Fea said...

Thanks to all of my faithful readers who sent me a copy of this review.

William said...

Thanks for the mention. I should clarify that I did read the Wood review before commenting: I meant "first impression" of the whole review, not just the part outside the NYRB online firewall.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Good Lord, I hope somebody has the guts to write some specifics!

John. ;-)

So much squawking on Wood, virtually no rebuttal! Is everybody waiting for someone else to go first?

FWIW, I read perhaps 1/3 of Lapore's book on Google Books preview, and caught her on C-SPAN. I was underimpressed. For one, I felt she quote-mined Jefferson and Madison for views on the Constitution that I think are unsupported by their larger canons.

William said...

I'm working on getting specific, but the subject is vast, and it'll be an overlong essay. As I've said on my blog as well, this Wood review of Lepore offers an interesting opportunity for getting into how American history has developed over the past generation or two. Meanwhile, for what it's worth, here's some more specific squawking on Wood, in the context of my complaining about the National Constitution Center, from my book Inventing American History:

"Gordon Wood, a generation younger than Morgan, follows some of the old progressives in defining the American Revolution as socially radical. But Wood means by 'radical' something different from what leftists mean. In The Radicalism of the American Revolution, as well as in many engaging articles for 'The New York Review of Books,' Wood has put a wide frame around the founding. For him the Revolution was not accomplished until the age of Jackson, when social mobility, small-scale enterprise, and a rowdy, unrefined spirit brought America into its own. Wood sees true American radicalism not in any failed or suppressed effort at populist egalitarianism, but in ending traditional forms of social deference and making a dynamic modern society. He therefore doesn't need to explain away the elitism of the famous founders, which had once led him, in progressive vein, to label the Constitution 'aristocratic.' In Wood's most mature work, the Revolution didn't end until those founders had been left behind and America had settled on the reasonably liberal, restlessly capitalist, socially fluid society that 18th-century citizens wouldn't have recognized.

"For all the provocative nuance possible within the consensus, its tendency is always to define as anachronistic, or at best marginal, the 18th-century radicalism that equated democracy with legislating social fairness, objected to old Whig traditions connecting liberty to property, and loudly dissented from both elite monetary policy and unfettered capitalism alike. Consensus historians' tone of moderation can give the public a false impression that progressives' old, discomfiting ideas about the role of class struggle in our founding have been permanently superseded by more judicious, less partial scholarship, and that there are no new progressive ideas to worry about. That impression is soothing for more-or-less liberal middle-class history buffs. It also gives support to the deadening self-congratulation and outright falsehood on display at the National Constitution Center. In academic history, a consensus view may be arrived at. In public history, consensus is coerced."

William said...
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William said...
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Tom Van Dyke said...

Thank you, William. I've admired your work and our paths have crossed in the past.

I see where you're starting, and frankly, I thought of you when Dr. Fea posted this:

http://www.philipvickersfithian.com/2010/12/why-have-american-historians-stopped.html

coupled with this list, many of the subjects I find risible, indeed beyond parody:

http://usreligion.blogspot.com/2011/01/ahas-american-religion-sessions.html

Basically, whether history has become "Find yourself in the Founding," as opposed to making some effort to make an account of the whole, forensic anthropology rather than genuine history.

[Finding proto-progressives in Philadelphia in 1776, for instance.]

And even if that is the best approach to history, surely no one---esp amateurs like Tea Partiers---can be totally faulted for sticking with the old-fashioned Gordon Wood approach, the search for the normative or simple factual empiricism on whatever consensus was achieved at any particular juncture.

[I do agree with your observation that discussing consensus can give a warm, fuzzy but false impression of unanimity. However, it was the Federalsts and not the anti-Federalists who prevailed, and the anti-Federalists are footnotes to the Federalists main text.]

See also my remarks on Dr. Fea's latest on this brouhaha, which perhaps are helpful. I disagree strongly with Ms. Lepore's method [and therefore her resulting product], and in a specific instance, her history as well.

Thx for your reply, WH.

John Fea said...

Thanks for the comment, William. I need to get a copy of your book. Your treatment of Wood's radicalism, of course, is spot on. Although even Wood would argue, as he does in *Creation*, that there was a moment of democratic radicalism in the early 1780s, particularly in the state governments. It did not last long, but Wood at least acknowledges it. As I am sure you know, this "democratic despotism," in Wood's interpretation, triggered the Federalist counter-revolution.

In this sense, there is a lot of similarity between Wood's *Creation* and progressive interpretations along the lines of Woody Holton's work.

William said...
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