Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Gordon Wood Is Still Relevant

History-related social media is blowing-up over Gordon Wood's essay on historian Bernard Bailyn in the recent issue of the conservative Weekly Standard.  The fact that Wood, one of the most decorated American historians of the past century, is the center of attention today tells me that what he has to say is still important. It is thus necessary for left-leaning historians (which is most of the profession) to engage his ideas. 

Here is one of the many parts of Wood's essay that is driving American historians crazy today:

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.  

And another controversial statement:

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. 

And again:

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. 

One more time:

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.

There is a lot I agree with in Wood's piece.  Large narratives--especially national narratives--are important to the way people understand the past.  Most academics are still favoring microscopic pieces of scholarship over bigger stories.  Wood thinks that such a trend is making history irrelevant. It is hard to argue with that point.  Specialized research, while necessary for tenure, promotion, and one's reputation in the small world of academic historians, does not reach ordinary people.  But why can't the new social history, which focuses a lot of attention on race, class, and gender, find its way into the national (or some larger) narrative?  Why must it be an "either-or" proposition?

But I also wonder if something else is going here.  Wood's work has been attacked by liberal scholars for decades.  I understand honest disagreements.  I am also sympathetic to those who have criticized Wood for being insensitive to the categories of the new social history.  But this attack on Wood reflects some of the more parochial, tribal dimensions of the academic profession, a community that wins points by preaching to the choir and rarely tolerates dissent,

Does Wood write mostly about dead white males? Yes.  Is Wood insensitive to the race, class, and gender?  Probably.  But he has taught thousands and thousands of people--teachers, history buffs, general readers--to think historically.  When his academic critics, safely cloistered in academic offices isolated from the ideas and values of a good portion of the American people, start having the impact that Wood has had on our understanding of American history, I may start to take their critiques more seriously.

And by the way...The Creation of the American Republic and The Radicalism of the American Revolution are great books.  Also, The Purpose of the Past deeply informed my thinking in Why Study History?  We have also spent a lot of time at The Way of Improvement Leads Home discussing Wood's work.

ADDENDUM:  There is a nice discussion of this post and Wood's essay at my Facebook page.