The "Glitzy Glorification of Jefferson" and "Learned Hagiography"

Over at blog of the Historical Society, Randall Stephens has posted an excerpt of Michal Jan Rozbicki‘s review of Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power.  Rozbicki, who teaches at St. Louis University, offers a scathing critique of what he calls “learned hagiography,” an approach to writing that employs “old-fashioned hero worship, elite-centered topic, seductive narrative aimed at popular readership, solid scholarly research with a heavy apparatus of citations, and a didactic political objective.”

Here is a taste:

Greatness sells, which is why hero-worshiping literature has a long and venerable tradition, rooted in both popular and elite culture. It stretches from Greek mythology, Gesta Romanorum, lives of saints, Arthurian legends, chivalric romances, troubadour songs, and chronicles of monarchs, through the political drama of Renaissance and the epic poetry of European romanticism, to didactic biographies of leaders (such as Parson Weems’s life of Washington) and historical novels. These writings—as opposed to modern, critical history aiming to explain why things happened—mostly describe prominent people and events in time, often embellishing them with invented episodes, folk legends, and even the personal views and experiences of the authors. The goals are usually fairly simple: exalt the qualities of the great and the saintly, lionize the powerful, and point to their role in changing the course of history. One of the distinctive features of this literature is that it was an instructional tool. Its aim was pragmatic and rooted in the present. Authors hoped that their works would supply the collective memory with worthy themes and symbols that bind societies and invite followers. The enduring attractiveness of such stories lies less in their adeptness in reconstructing facts than in their ability to conjure up ideal types, to celebrate the potential of the individual person, and to offer positive models of virtue—all qualities that defy the incoherence of the world. 

2 thoughts on “The "Glitzy Glorification of Jefferson" and "Learned Hagiography"

  1. I would argue that to properly teach about anything in the past including people one must teach the pros and cons. Regarding Jefferson, he did some things well and some things pretty badly. He was human, not a god or demi-god. In order to teach about him it is imperative to teach both the good and the bad.

    We develop much of our lives from our experiences and Jefferson was no exception. What I find interesting about Jefferson is that he appears to have been the kind of person that would say the ends justify the means. He had a goal and he would justify anything in pursuit of that goal.

    It would be wrong to teach about the greatness of Jefferson without explaining his faults and his massive errors. People like to point out that he was a great president, but he made a lot of mistakes. So many that he had a great first term, but a horrible second term. Like any president he had some good ideas, and some bad ones. What I see about him is that he used national power to enforce his views even when they were horribly wrong.

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  2. I'm on the fence. If one's first exposure to Jefferson is along the lines of Conor Cruise O'Brien's demolition

    http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/96oct/obrien/obrien.htm

    there will be little of value to take away.

    And of course, what is the purpose of public education in the first place? Why, the preservation of the republic of course. Teach our young citizens of only the republic's flaws, and they will imagine a republic not worth defending.

    “We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.”–CS Lewis

    The other purpose of education is su[pposedly to teach the art of critical thinking. However–and I suppose you touch on this in your new book

    Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past

    available for $13.50 in paperback @ http://www.amazon.com/books/dp/0801039657

    that “presentism” is the default, and is the secret of doing bad history–Thomas Jefferson, slaveowner and therefore hypocrite, author of our Founding principles so WTF up with them while we're at it?

    So yes, “greatness sells,” but that's because hypocrisy is so cheap. I'm not a big fan of Jon Meacham–he's a leveller and a lumper–but still, it's harder to explain greatness than it is to chronicle banality.

    Great men are unique, that's what makes them great; lesser men are all more or less the same.

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