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.

10 thoughts on “Gordon Wood Is Still Relevant

  1. Anachronism or Moral Judgment? 02/28/2015
    After readying the interesting discussions of two years ago in the Junto blog on Professor Gordon S. Wood, today I read his recent review of Mr. Bailyn’s last book Something of an Art which somehow took me to this blog. All the comments and opinions are on point and revealed many fascinating aspects of the state of the discipline today, and more importantly of the state of American culture. It seems to me that it may be undergoing a crucial turning point.
    Professor Wood makes an eloquent and well-deserved tribute of his teacher to whom we also admire reserving in our libraries special places for treasures like Peopling, Voyagers, Ordeal, and Barbarians. The same comments can be made about Radicalism, Idea of America, and The Purpose of the Past. There is no question about both the good-faith and open-mindness of these two masters of Early American History.
    Professor Wood’s uneasiness on the obvious transformation of the discipline is made clear when he refers to the historians “obsession with inequality and white privilege in American history.” He blames the younger generation of historians, calling them moral critics, activist historians, moral reformers, and present-day moralists for fragmenting American history, and dedicating themselves to recover exclusively the stories of the dispossessed.
    According to Professor Wood their fallacy is to judge the past by the moral values of the present and in doing so becoming anachronistic. They thus do not respect the pastness of the past. He adds that “nevertheless, for us today, looking back through centuries, the white’s treatment of the Indians seems totally immoral and inexcusable. Can history ever evade that kind of moral judgment?” With this last question he finally confronts what actually motivates the dissenters, the moral question.
    I agree with Elton that “the future is dark; the present is burdensome; only the past, dead and finished, bears contemplation.” But, I at the same time and at risk of contradiction, also believe with Faulkner that “the past isn’t dead. It is not even past.” Further, I believe, following Berreby that “long-standing miseries can’t be cured until the overthrow of the certainties that support them.”
    So, the present-day moralists have been left with the option of either respect the pastness of the past avoiding anachronism or making the moral judgments which cannot be evade. In doing that, they had to set aside exceptionalism and are also willing to take a fresher view of our nation’s origins.
    To illustrate the option of these moral critics I would like to use a present-day example: last week Giuliani, former mayor of New York, said that Obama did not love America because of his upbringing and because he was too influence by communist teachers during his youth. He added that Obama “does not talk about America the way John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan did, about America’s greatness and exceptionalism. He was educated by people who were critics of the U.S. and he has not been able to overcome those influences.” A mature America does not need exceptionalism, and the “great men of history” are also things of the past, however the confrontation is still taking place right now, here, every day.
    I think that Professor Wood’s clear analysis identified indirectly the “cultural war” of our times. He was certainly referring to History, but present-day politics reflects the same moral question.


  2. Of course – despite what others may think – the stories of Native Americans and Slavery ARE central to our Narrative – as are other, more positive aspects as well.

    D. Harscheid


  3. John, your attack on “liberal scholars” is Kimballian/D'Souzian grandstanding, more in keeping with a follower of David Barton than an “honest” historian. You sure that's the choir you want to be preaching to?

    I have more to say about that here. No comments yet, though the traffic has been insane. Maybe you're getting some link traffic back to this post? You're welcome.

    Honestly, you should know better than to gin up pseudo-populist contempt for academic inquiry. Just because you have the secular academy to run interference between you and the mob for now doesn't mean your little “cloister” of academe will escape the frenzy. Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.


  4. Good to see you get to this, John. I picked several of these excerpts for use on my own blog later.

    The point is that history–the narrative of how we got here today–has been replaced by sociology, “isolating and recovering stories of the dispossessed.”

    Which are narratives in their own right, but unfortunately lack necessary explanatory power because they–quite purposely–have “little or no sense of the whole.”

    It's not merely a question of chauvinistically favoring dead white males over the left-handed Zoroastrian lesbians of frontier Wisconsin, it's exerting a certain rigor in separating the text from the footnotes.

    The former is history, and without a sense of the whole and where Zoroastrians fit into it, the latter isn't even very good sociology.

    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.

    That's how we got David Barton, BTW. When people find out there's a bit more to America's religious heritage than the “Godless Constitution” and “social contract” theses they were fed, they start to doubt the truth of everything else they were taught.

    True the pendulum swung back too far
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/21/AR2010052104365.html but such is the nature of pendula: Once pushed one way, they must come back the other.

    It's not as though “the narrative of the dispossessed,” isn't well-served: There's not a schoolkid out there who's not aware of how America screwed the Indians and enslaved then segregated black people. But although the particulars are quite sensational, there's a numbing banality to man's inhumanity to man. What's necessary is to explore those occasions where America transcended the banal, where it found its better angels.

    Unfortunately, that sounds too much like “American exceptionalism” to “the new generation of historians” that Wood seeks to correct

    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.

    In the end, Wood's is a formal criticism then, more than an ideological one [in fact it's anti-ideological] that teaching sociology under the cover of history is a category error, not history atall.


  5. Yes, “the trick is to weave it together,” and to be able to encompass the complexity of human thought and human behavior. We are all great an terrible at the same time, if we are great at all.

    There is a role for public historians and Historical Societies, to act as bridges and as interpreters here. The notion that the public has no interest in complexity is true only in a small measure — good public history embraces the grey.


  6. I am a huge fan of Gordon Wood. His work inspired me to specialize in the American Revolution and to go on to graduate school. Creation of the American Republic and Radicalism of the American Revolution are treasured pieces of my library. I watch his speeches for inspiration.

    With that said, Gordon represents one part of the historical research arena while others represent a different aspect of it. What needs to happen is for these aspects to be integrated to form a larger grand narrative.

    I find it odd that he seems to criticize Bernard Bailyn's Atlantic History concept when Bailyn was his mentor. Bailyn pretty much switched gears to become a social historian by the 1980s which is astonishing on its own. The article of course is lionizing Bailyn for his work which was instrumental in the development of the Republican Synthesis. In fact, you can read The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution and go right into The Creation of the American Republic.

    The thing to remember is that Wood is right on his Republican Synthesis (along with others). So is Bailyn with his Atlantic History. So are the Gender, Class, and Race historians. It all goes together. The trick is to weave it together. In the process some stuff is going to be left out which is where the specialists come in.

    It is funny how so many learned historians complain about historians like Joseph Ellis writing about dead white men and selling good numbers of books to an interested audience. There is an audience interested in our history. The problem is many historians are not writing for that audience. It is not that they only want to hear certain feel good things. It is they want information presented to them that they are interested in.


  7. I agree, Jordon–that he doesn't “challenge his audience to rethink what early American history means.” It's fun to hear a narrative of young patriots redefining the social fabric and themselves engendering democracy. It makes all of us feel like we are in the best country, and that the US fought a clean revolution, etc.

    But non triumphalist narratives (on the Revolution and everything else) are harder to read. They are harder to digest. They force us to think historically in a way that doesn't massage our American ego. They are not mass market sellers in the same numbers because of American pride, not because they aren't excellent and important works of scholarship.


  8. Thanks for this post. I agree that there's a frustrating tendency towards tribalism among academic historians when something like this crops up, especially on twitter.

    However, I think that it's a bit unfair to hold Wood's larger audience against his critics. One reason for his relatively large popular audience and his opportunity to get thousands to “think historically” is simply that he doesn't challenge his audience to rethink what early American history means. If Wood had poured his often-elegant prose, his decades of accumulated knowledge, and his considerable intellectual resources into a career devoted to the history of women of African descent in early America, could anyone really believe that he would have had the same popular imprint he's had now? In other words, is Wood's impact and “relevance” solely a product of his own erudition and hard work (traits shared by many of the great historians Wood is dissing), or is it also related to the fact that a general reading public enjoys hearing about the founders, the Constitution, and democratization?

    Don't get me wrong, though. I revere Creation of the American Republic, and I don't see any reason why some historians can't write high intellectual and political histories while others write about ordinary and marginalized peoples. The presumption of “either-or” seems to be the big mistake Wood is making in that piece, to me.


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