Wood on Literary Scholars and Historians

One of the books that was helpful to me in graduate school was Michael Warner’s The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America (Harvard, 1990). In his new book The Purpose of the Past, Gordon Wood reprints his review of Warner’s book, which appeared in the New Republic in 1990. We have been working through Wood’s thinking about the historical task and in this review he shows the fundamental difference between the way a historian approaches the past and the way a literary critic approaches the past.

Wood actually likes The Letters of the Republic. Me too. Warner makes a compelling argument that print empowered ordinary people to engage in public discourse and ultimately allowed them to critique the state. Participation in a burgeoning print culture broke down traditional political power structures in a way that made the American Revolution possible. Back in the mid 1990s I took Warner and the works of scholars such as Benedict Anderson and used them to help explain the evangelical revival known as the First Great Awakening. (Although I tried to suggest that it was actually letter-writing rather than print that created an evangelical community in 18th century New England).

Wood uses this review to show how literary critics approach the past. While he seems to have no beef with what literary scholars do, he wants to make it clear that what they do is NOT history. For Wood, historians “reconstruct the past as accurately as possible.” Literary critics, on the other hand, “have other agendas.” According to Wood, the “new historicism” wants to “deconstruct the past in order to show us that all the values, all the institutions, , all the canons, all the truths, and all the texts by which we live our lives are simply imprisoning fictions that were created by some people in the past (especially white males) for self-serving purposes. These fictions are, therefore, readily susceptible to being destroyed by us in the present, in preparation for the emergence of a new, more just, more democratic order.”

Wood’s definition of history may seem rather restricting, but I think he is on the mark in distinguishing the way literary critics and historians approach the past. Indeed, history as a discipline is different from literary criticism and it seems that in our quest to be more interdisciplinary we sometimes forget this. I think historians and literary critics should, must, and can learn from one another, but let’s remember that they are two different disciplines.

Finally, Wood uses this review to criticize the way literary critics, and all theorists for that matter, write. (I might add that historians are not immune from his criticism). He likes Warner’s book and his argument, but sorely laments the fact that his technical prose will prevent the book from reaching the wide audience that his argument deserves.

He writes: “And he (Warner) writes sentences that defy understanding for all but the initiated: ‘The very idea of the diffusion of literature presupposes a recalcitrant social difference. Its implicit center-periphery metaphorics registers the centralization of literacy that the thematic context of the discourse disavows.’ “

Yikes! I don’t understand how cultural theorists write with an agenda of liberation, but most of the people they hope to liberate cannot make sense of their prose.

One thought on “Wood on Literary Scholars and Historians

  1. As one who has been reading a lot of lit crit lately, I can appreciate your point. However, I’ve also read many historians recently who not only explore the historical context, but narrate the literary dynamics at work in a particular place and particular time. I find this kind of analysis quite rich and illuminating–and the fruit of much scholarly labor on the part of the historian.

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