U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Wood on Lepore on presentism or, why Gordon Wood thinks Jill Lepore is an academic snob

The history blogosphere has been abuzz the last couple of weeks over Gordon Wood’s takedown of Jill Lepore in his NYRB treatment of her book, The Whites of Their Eyes. Since I’ve already expressed my admiration for Lepore’s book, I read the review with a certain amount of consternation that grew to bafflement and finally culminated in a small amount of outrage and incredulity. Gordon Wood is, of course, one of our preeminent historians of the Founding period, and Lepore is one of the most interesting (and widely read) historians of the past decade through her sharp and funny essays in the New Yorker. The conflict between them is suggestive not so much of a debate over the past, but of our attitude toward the past and of the purposes of history.

Let’s start with Wood. I, like almost everyone, admire Wood’s first book, The Creation of the American Republic, and consider his second book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, a remarkable work in spite of its Whig inclinations. It is, alas, those Whig inclinations that set him against Lepore. For Wood, the Revolution was the archetypal moment that placed the United States on a trajectory toward greatness. It put forth the radical idea of the equality of all men (and women, Wood would have us believe), an idea that “tore through American society and culture with awesome power.” You might remember that The Radicalism of the American Revolution received a Pulitzer prize, but praise from academic quarters was not universal. In a 1994 William and Mary Quarterly roundtable on the work, all the participants–Joyce Appleby, Michael Zuckermann, Barbara Clark Smith–expressed some degree of dissatisfaction with Wood’s conceptualization and argument. But no one quite got to the major problems with the book–a book, remember, that I admire–like Barbara Clark Smith in her essay, “The Adequate Revolution.” Smith argues that Wood’s narrative highlights “a single thread, namely the inevitable if sometimes slow expansion of liberty under the American state.” As a result, his account is oddly ahistorical, leaving out many of “the society’s central and most pressing issues.” Focusing especially on women, Smith notes that Wood seeks to credit the Revolution with the achievement of women’s rights (even though the Nineteenth Amendment was passed nearly one hundred and fifty years later). This sends her into a fit of incredulity. “The Revolution was not some transhistorical agent that could go marching through the ages to bestow economic, social, or political rights on waiting womankind,” Smith objects.
Enter Lepore. The Whites of their Eyes is, as much of anything, a meditation of the uses of history and an objection to the uses to which the Tea Party movement has put the American past. Lepore objects to their “antihistory” that conflates the past with the present and ultimately leads to “historical fundamentalism.” This, I think, is the ultimate source of conflict between Lepore and Wood. Lepore spends most of the book offering various stories of the late eighteenth century that undermine a triumphant view of the period–the ways in which slaves, women, the insane, and the poor struggled in a frankly illiberal era–in order to show the strangeness of the past and the limitations that that strangeness imposes when trying to put the past to work in a nationalist celebration or a political movement. But Wood is, in fact, engaged in the nationalist celebration as a central component of his intellectual project. He believes that the United States is in some sense unique in providing a model of liberty for the world, and he looks to the founding moment, much as the Tea Partiers do, in a way that Smith calls “transhistorical.”
His review bears out this tension. Wood begins by claiming that “Americans seem to have a special need for these authentic historical figures [such as Washington or Jefferson] in the here and now.” But instead of taking this need seriously, Wood complains that Lepore, “an expert at mocking,” does what academic historians do by “making fun of the Tea party.” In her criticism of the movement’s historical malapropisms and strained political gestures, Wood suggests that the book’s implicit question is: “Don’t these people realize just how silly they are?” This academic elitism further suggests to Wood a misunderstanding of history for “ordinary Americans” that someone like Lepore just can’t seem to get.
This is where his review gets really weird. He never quite admits that the Tea Party’s history is bad, or that their stance toward it is wrong-headed. Instead, Wood shifts into a discussion of memory, as opposed to history, and the emotional requirement of memory for, again, “ordinary Americans.” As opposed to critical history, Wood asserts that ordinary Americans need a variety of mythical interpretations by which “humans have sought to sanctify their societies, buttress their institutions, and invest their lives and their nations with a sense of destiny.” At one point Wood suggests that “Lepore is correct in believing that historians have a professional obligation to dispel myths and legends,” but then he spends the next eight paragraphs trying to show the emotional thinness of critical history, which seems to suggest that professional obligations run contrary to human need–a somewhat bizarre stance for an intellectual and an educator. Since I’ve just published a book that seeks to dispel a myth (The Myth of Religious Freedom) I read this section of the review with great interest, but the more I think about it, the less it makes sense. It seems to be nothing so much as an intellectual defense of anti-intellectualism. He seems, against all protestations to the contrary, to be faulting the historian Jill Lepore for being (wait for it) . . . a historian!
At bottom, his conclusion seems to be that you must not be critical if you write a history that culminates in or intersects with the present. You must be sensitive to the human need to use history to cloth our lives with destiny. You must remain subservient to nationalist imperatives or risk being an academic snob. You must, in other words, be Gordon S. Wood.

21 Thoughts on this Post

S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.

  1. Thanks for this fascinating post on a dustup that I had somehow totally missed.

    I’ve now read the Wood review (and I have no excuse for not reading it before, since I’m an NYRB subscriber) and a lot of the online chatter about it, though I’ve yet to read Lepore’s book. Your reaction of bafflement and incredulity seems about right to me.

    One thing that irritated me was his defense of legal originalism in the middle of the review. Here’s Wood:

    Originalism may not be good history, but it is a philosophy of legal and constitutional interpretation that has engaged some of the best minds in the country’s law schools over the past three decades or so. It is basic to the mission of the Federalist Society (an important organization of conservative and libertarian jurists, lawyers, law professors, and students), and at times it may have as many as four adherents on the Supreme Court. Justice Antonin Scalia’s book A Matter of Interpretation: Federal Courts and the Law (1997), which staked out an originalist position on statutory interpretation, was taken seriously enough to generate critical responses from Ronald Dworkin, Lawrence H. Tribe, Mary Ann Glendon, and myself, all published in Scalia’s book along with his replies. In other words, originalism, controversial as it may be, is a significant enough doctrine of judicial interpretation that even its most passionate opponents would not write it off as cavalierly as Lepore does in this book.

    This is the crudest sort of argument from authority. Smart people take originalism seriously, says Wood, including me. That, rather than a substantive defense of originalism–or even its intellectual seriousness–is enough, in Wood’s view, to indict Lepore for dismissing it.

    In fact, plenty of legal scholars think originalism is not only wrong but risible. (And lest anyone thinks that my linking a blog post from a legal academic is insufficient evidence for that claim, I’m happy to stack Lawyers, Guns, and Money up against the Regnery-published book that Wood cites to prove his.)

    At any rate, Wood’s appeal to academic authority in this case seems particularly bizarre in light of his review’s would-be defense of memory, which Wood presents as truly of-the-people. But Constitutional originalism isn’t “memory” in this sense unless “memory” simply becomes a get-out-jail-free card for any false vision of the past, however constructed for whatever purpose. And why Wood’s apparent respect in the quoted passage for anything said, thought, and published by smart people doesn’t apply to Lepore herself is anyone’s guess. Why is the fact that a view is held by the Federalist Society (which all would admit is a socially and politically significant institution) enough to make it worthy of respect, while a view held by many at institutions like The New Yorker or various Ivy League history departments can be blithely dismissed as elite snobbism (in part, at least implicitly, because it’s connected to these very institutions)?

  2. David,

    Thought provoking. Thanks for posting this.

    This is not to defend Wood—I agree with the Whiggish label strain identified by you and others—but connecting myth to history is not really that weird. Wasn’t it Hayden White that identified the myth as the theoretical area where subjectivity and objectivity meet in historical narrative (i.e. we must be poets of history)? Or rather, that myth serves as an area to substitute when facts and meaning don’t correlate properly? Even so, it seems odd to me that Wood would defend a Hayden White-like approach to a historical topic about which he has studied the empirical evidence extensively. Indeed, I think has been identified with the more empiricist side of the profession for most of his career.

    Perhaps these gymnastics are indirect evidence of a political position held by Wood that he’s reluctant to admit?

    Aside: I wonder why Barbara Clark-Smith had to invent the term “transhistorical” rather than use the old standby “ahistorical”? Or what of “anachronistic”?

    – TL

  3. Radicalism is a flawed book, mainly because Wood’s conceptual scheme has large gaps, but the criticisms leveled against it by Smith and Zuckerman are amongst the stupidest and most asinine things I’ve ever seen a historian put their name to. Their argument basically reduces to, “How dare Gordon Wood publish this book that doesn’t confirm my political agenda.” If anyone was guilty of propagating an ahistorical interpretation of the Revolution, it was those two. Zuckerman is a clown, so I expected an inane, trivial analysis. Smith I’d never heard of, and after I read her review I didn’t wonder why.

  4. Great post — says it all.

    “You must, in other words, be Gordon S. Wood.” Yeah, that may really be the problem. It would help explain the flat-out weirdness, the misreading of the book under review, etc.

  5. Ms. Lepore did not accept the necessary rigor of establishing that the Tea Party’s normative understanding of itself as any more than figurative, metaphorical and analogous to the original.

    And so, there has been little effort made on the part of her supporters to defend the book on its own merits, because it cannot be defended on a scholarly basis as it lacks the necessary rigor.

    It’s opinion journalism, based on anecdote. The Tea Partiers are ignorant and don’t know their history. Which is fine. For opinion journalism.

    But I would argue they were well aware that what are perhaps their biggest beefs, the ballooning deficit and encroaching “socialism” [read: Obamacare] were not issues at the first Tea Party. Further, the original was an act of destruction and civil disobedience; the modern version certainly was not.

    The issue here to me seems to be Wood, and the battle for history and how to do it. If Lepore’s book is how to do it, by anecdote rather than attempting an empirical search for the normative, then all history will become opinion journalism.

    For the record, Wood’s argument for originalism is an appeal to authority, but we do that all the time by citing “experts.’ It does not rise to the level of logical fallacy, since he does not claim “truth” for originalism, only validity.

    In fact, plenty of legal scholars think originalism is not only wrong but risible.

    If this is an argument to exclude originalism from validity, it rises to the level of logical fallacy.

  6. If this is an argument to exclude originalism from validity, it rises to the level of logical fallacy.

    To be clear: I was not trying to construct an argument to exclude originalism from validity. I was suggesting that Wood’s attacking Lepore (whose book, again, I haven’t read so I’m in no position to defend directly) for the very fact that she refuses to take originalism seriously is not, in and of itself, much of an argument against her account of originalism (especially if one’s only defense of originalism’s validity is an appeal to authority).

  7. It seemed to me that Wood was inconsistent in his review. He attacked Lepore’s style and the method of historical memory more broadly while at the same time defending the right of the Tea Party to search for an “emotional meaning in the Revolution” based on myth.

    I got the feeling he wants to put the “destiny” back into “history.”

  8. David:

    Although I’ve yet to read the Lepore book (I’ve read her New Yorker pieces on the Tea Party), and although I mostly agree with your critique of Wood, who is curiously obliging a right-wing postmodern take on history–curious because he is famous for his loathing of left-wing postmodern history–I tend to think Wood lands a few hits. For example, this paragraph:

    “Following one of the several examples she cites of the cruel way the eighteenth century treated insane persons, tying them up like animals, [Lepore] comments: ‘I don’t want to go back to that,’ as if the present-day Tea Partiers do. How foolish can they be? After quoting an evangelical minister who in 1987 expressed confidence that Benjamin Franklin would not identify with the secular humanists of our own time ‘were he alive today,’ she can’t help mocking the minister. ‘Alas,’ she writes, Franklin ‘is not, in fact, alive today. And, while I confess that I’m quite excessively fond of him, the man is not coming back.'”

    Perhaps Wood took these passages out of context. But Lepore comes across as ridiculously glib.

  9. I also haven’t read Lepore’s book, but I did just read her recent New Yorker piece,


    She seems to me to be edging the whole time toward this basic point: originalism allows the constitution to function exactly like the bible. the language she quotes at the beginning of the essay all points in this direction (keep it with you at all times, meditate on its meaning, consider it when you make important decisions…)

    “Originalism is popular. Four in ten Americans favor it. Not all Tea Partiers are originalists, but the movement is fairly described as a populist movement inclined toward originalism. The populist appeal of originalism overlaps with that of heritage tourism: both collapse the distance between past and present and locate virtue in an imaginary eighteenth century where “the people” and “the élite” are perfectly aligned in unity of purpose. Originalism, which has no purchase anywhere but here, has a natural affinity with some varieties of Protestantism, and the United States differs from all other Western democracies in the far greater proportion of its citizens who believe in the literal truth of the Bible. Although originalism is a serious and influential mode of constitutional interpretation, Greene has argued that it is also a political product manufactured by the New Right and marketed to the public by talk radio, cable television, and the Internet, where it enjoys a competitive advantage over other varieties of constitutional interpretation, partly because it’s the easiest.

    An unexamined question at the heart of this debate, then, is how people actually read the Constitution. Many people are now reading it, with earnestness and dedication, often in reading groups modelled on Bible study groups.”

    She never quites comes out and says it, but it seems to me pretty clear that she believes that this is what is going on, and this is the peculiar form of collapsing the past and present that upsets her so much. I am inclined to agree with her, and to be sympathetic because it seems to me that she is quite aware that this isn’t new, that this isn’t unprecedented, that this has been happening at least since the Civil War–and this last would be a natural date for the transformation of the Constitution into a religious symbol, since the war is easily described as one enormous blood-sacrifice for it—indeed, those who aren’t particularly concerned about slavery really have no other way of explaining what the war *means*, as opposed to what it was about.

  10. Thank you for your reply, Mr. Alpers. My main point is the insufficiency if not invalidity of Ms. Lepore’s method as defensible scholarship.

    Since you chose to address the “originalism” issue:

    Does the Tea Party normatively see the Constitution as some sort of Bible? How can her method [or lack of one] establish that?

    Further, what are the Good Professor’s bona fides on constitutional law and history? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

    She can deride the Tea Party’s understanding of history as sophomoric, but could she hold up her end against originalism against a Hadley Arkes? It is she who seems to argue from authority against it, citing unnamed scholars who find originalism “risible.”

    Further, I object strongly to her reading of Jefferson and Madison on p. 113, which is contentious if not downright quote-farming—it conflates their openness to change with advocating a fungible or “evolving” method of interpreting the constitution. [“Living” constitution if you will, as opposed to originalism.]

    Had Wood been doing a fisking—he was making
    a larger argument instead—he might have written this in rebuttal,
    which few Tea Partiers would disagree with, and which looks entirely
    like “originalism” to me:

    “I entirely concur in the propriety of resorting to the sense in which
    the Constitution was accepted and ratified by the nation. In that sense
    alone it is the legitimate Constitution. And if that be not the guide
    in expounding it, there can be no security for a consistent and stable,
    more than for a faithful exercise of its powers.

    If the meaning of the text be sought in the changeable meaning of the
    words composing it, it is evident that the shape and attributes of the
    Government must partake of the changes to which the words and phrases
    of all living languages are constantly subject. What a metamorphosis
    would be produced in the code of law if all its ancient phraseology
    were to be taken in its modern sense And that the language of our
    Constitution is already undergoing interpretations unknown to its
    founders, will I believe appear to all unbiased Enquirers into the
    history of its origin and adoption.”

    Madison, Letter to Henry Lee, 1824

    There are other quotes from the Jefferson and Madison canons along these lines that directly counter the impression Lepore leaves of their views on p.113. Who watches the watchers?

    But I get the impression there is little interest in discussing or defending Lepore’s work on its own merits. Perhaps after it hits the bargain bin, which should be any moment now.

    [Was that too snarky, or are anti-polemicists allowed to have a little fun too? Pls advise.]

    I’m in no position to defend directly) for the very fact that she refuses to take originalism seriously is not, in and of itself, much of an argument against her account of originalism (especially if one’s only defense of originalism’s validity is an appeal to authority).

  11. Tom–
    I’m not sure what your animus against Lepore’s book is–you accuse her of not using sound historical method, but the book doesn’t pretend to be a history–it uses the insight of the historian to address a contemporary appropriation of the past by a group of contemporaries. She is trying to bring what Wood has elsewhere described as the historical sense of things to a contemporary public discourse. Are you saying that the Tea Party advocates she spoke to are good historians? I recommend you read, if you haven’t, Jack Rakove’s Original Meanings, which establishes pretty convincingly both the problems with originalism as a mode of interpretation and that Madison was the first originalist, but only _after_ the ratification of the Constitution, and in contrast to the dominant modes of textual interpretation prevalent at the moment of its authorship.

    Here is Wood from his recent collection of book reviews, _The Purpose of the Past_ (2008): ” But the present should not be the criterion for what we find in the past. Our perceptions and explanations of the past should not be directly shaped by the issues and problems of our own time. The best and most serious historians have come to know that, even when their original impulse to write history came from a pressing present problem. . . . The past in the hands of expert historians becomes a different world, a complicated world that requires considerable historical imagination to recover with any degree of accuracy. . . . To be able to see the participants of the past in this comprehensive way , to see them in the context of their time, to describe their blindness and folly with sympathy, to recognize the extent to which they were caught up in changing circumstances over which they had little control, and to realize the degree to which they created results they never intended–to know all this about the past and be able to relate it without anachronistic distortion to our present is what is meant by having a historical sense.” (pp. 10-11)

    I don’t think this position is controversial among historians, and it is precisely the sense that Lepore finds lacking in the Tea Party version of history. What is so puzzling is why Wood would attack Lepore for her attempt to bring that historical sense to the discussion. The one area where historians might be able to speak with some authority is on the complexity of the past, and Wood here seems to say that to do so is evidence of snobbishness. Too much!


  12. Thank you, Mr. Wickberg. I do not think an attempt can be made to defend Ms. Lepore’s work on scholarly grounds, nor do you attempt to. That was my core objection.

    As unreliable as polls are, they take an empirical form at least, and could provide an honest attempt at describing what is normative for Tea Partiers to know or believe.

    The book’s method is to talk to some organizers of a very disorganized [or let’s say “diverse”] movement, if not some people hanging out in the park.

    So who are Lepore’s subjects/objects/victims? Too small a sample to even be considered a sample.

    So what is the purpose here besides polemic [Lepore is clearly a gentleperson of the left]? What if fellow professional historian Gordon Wood went to the Jon Stewart rally to shoot fish in a barrel on their historical ignorance and political-civic misapprehensions? Of what value would that be?

    Yes, I freely admit an animus against Lepore’s work, as Mr. Hartman writes, that it is “ridiculously glib,” and I would add, facile.

    But on the grounds of intellectual rigor, method, and even-handedness. A clever fellow like you or I could create a mirror-image of this hatchet job with little trouble. As they say, just think how dumb the average person is, then realize half the population is dumber than him!

    I also have strong reservations about historians dabbling in current events while the ink of “the first draft of history” isn’t even dry, whether as pundits or as journalists. I meself recommend a statute of limitations going back 5 or 10 years—credentials or expertise in history do not necessarily transfer to political philosophy or even good journalism.

    Or in the case in point here about “originalism,” that Dr. Lepore knows a damn thing about constitutional law or history, and has no standing to question the Tea Partiers and their inability to articulate “originalism” any better than she can, for she has not.

    I must admit that my own disposition is toward affirmative argument, apology over polemics, if you will. I spent as much time as I did back-checking professor/journalist Lepore’s work because its neither fish-nor-fowl nature struck me as unfair, playing both ends against the middle, with no establishable “middle” [what is normative “Tea Party thinking”]. And yes, her method [and unfair academic advantage over her fish in the barrel] did raise an animus in me, but for reasons given.

    I do appreciate the reply; I’m quite up on the Balkin-Barnett edge on originalism and have some thoughts to add, should this blog want to go there. And although I find your clarification on Madison’s constitutionalism pre- vs. post-ratification incisive and valid, my objection to Lepore’s characterization of Jefferson and Madison on the Constitution per her book stands, that she left quite a false impression for her readers who might be almost as ignorant as the Tea Partiers.

    [Almost. ;-)]

    Anyone left down here with just us chickens are of course cordially invited to my groupblog, American Creation, where we tend to favor the source materials over arguing Historian X against Historian Y.

    The only reason I visited here was one of our bloggers linked [favorably] to Mr. Sehat’s original essay, and I figgered I might as well convey my refudiation, such as it is, back here to the source, and do a little of the dirty work that Wood [intelligently] decided not to.

    We have the Tea Partiers attacked, and then Gordon Wood. The hole in the donut is Ms. Lepore herself. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Me, I guess. Google doesn’t turn much up.

  13. I think Wood’s essential point is that you don’t need to defend Tea Party history to insist that those who critcize it do so civilily, rather than mockingly (I can’t say whether LePore’s work mocks them since I haven’t read it) or avering racism.

    Therefore, your point that Wood’s article is “weird” for not addressing the Tea Party’s version misses the essence of his review. Wood thinks it is useful that the Tea Party shows an interest in history, and that correcting their misstatements rather than ridiculing them is a better endeavor for a professor to engage in.

    I had expected a wholesale condemnation of LePore’s book from your charcteriation of his review as a “Take Down.” Instead, I find a wise, distinguished professor emeritus giving some useful advice to his distinguished, slightly junior (everyone still teaching is junior compared with Wood) colleague.

  14. The People’s Business,

    As I’ve said upthread I haven’t read Lepore’s book so I cannot speak to its tone.

    But I have read Wood’s review. And it’s really not criticizing the tone of Lepore’s book.

    It’s possible that civility is an issue with Lepore’s book, but that’s not the nature of Wood’s criticism.

  15. Ben,

    I took at LePore’s publisher’s page at Princeton Press. They even use a quote from Wood’s review (one of only three they cite), which indicates that view it something less than critical (at least overall).

    What I am referring to re Wood’s criticism of her tone can be found early on in his review, to wit:

    “Americans seem to have a special need for these authentic historical figures in the here and now. It is very easy for academic historians to mock this special need, and Harvard historian Jill LePore…is an expert at mocking.”

    Further down:

    “Throughout her book, LePore’s implicit question remains always: Don’t These Tea Party people realize how silly they are?”

    Nearer the end:

    “Despite all her ridicle, LePore at least does not pass off the Tea Party movement as some sort of Astroturf affair…”

    Mocking. Silly. Ridicule. – It sounds to me like Wood is criticizing the book’s tone, unless of course he believes that the Tea Party deserves to be mocked and ridiculed.

    Does he?

    “The Tea Partiers are certainly not scholars, but their emotional instincts about the Revolution they are trying to remember on behalf of their cause may be more accurate than LePore is willing to grant.”

    Doesn’t sound like it to me.

    He then goes on to discuss the importance of poular memory and how historians can positively shape this (i.e. accurately through accessibly written accounts).

    What I took away from this, is that historians are better off communicating the truth about America’s past to citizens interested in history than engaging in what he calls at the end her “academic contempt.”

  16. Since multiple people have noted that they haven’t read the book, let me say this: I have read the book, and I don’t think that Lepore mocks the Tea Party. She goes to the rallies. She quotes Tea Party members. She portrays them as civil, and concerned, and sincere. But she disagrees with them and thinks that their vision of the American Revolution and their orientation toward history is fallacious. She wrote a book to explain why. What Wood sees as mocking and academic snobbery I see as an effort by Lepore to engage the Tea Party in order to point out the error of their vision of history. And Wood’s dislike of of the book emerges out of their different approach not toward intellectual engagement in the present but their different vision of the Revolution. Wood has a heroic view of the American Revolution and Lepore does not. Instead of explaining that disagreement, he labels her a snob.

    But the only way to see who is correct is to read the book.

  17. TPB,

    I don’t read those passages from Wood’s review as criticism of Lepore’s tone, but of her substance, as becomes clear from the context of those passages. It’s certainly possible to use the words you focus on from Wood’s review in a criticism of someone’s tone. But Wood’s review criticizes the substance of what Lepore has to say, not simply the tone. Wood very definitely does not suggest that Lepore’s criticisms of the Tea Party movement are on the mark but not stated civilly enough. He disagrees with the substance of the criticisms:

    The Tea Partiers are certainly not scholars, but their emotional instincts about the Revolution they are trying to remember on behalf of their cause may be more accurate than Lepore is willing to grant. Popular memory is not history, and that important distinction seems to be the source of the problem with Lepore’s book. Although she has spent much of her career mulling over the difference between critical history and popular memory, she doesn’t have any sympathy for the way in which some advocates of the Tea Party movement have remembered the Revolution.

    This is not a call for Lepore to state her objections more politely. This is an attempt to make a case against Lepore’s objections.


    It must be frustrating to have so many people discuss a book they haven’t read. I apology for adding to your frustration. I’ve tried to limit my comments to things that I have read (Wood’s review and the discussions of it online). FWIW, Lepore’s book is sitting on my iPad; I hope to read it soon (though to be perfectly blunt, your book is also on my iPad and it’s much higher priority).

  18. Ben,

    I didn’t mean to convey frustration in my last comment, so I hope I didn’t. This general disagreement about what his review is actually saying strengthens what I see as my original point: It’s a weird review that is oblique enough in its criticism that it is difficult to see just where he is going other than that he thinks Lepore is an academic snob.

    And thanks for buying my book!

  19. Ben,

    We’ll have to “agree to disagree” I suppose. We’re quoting the very same passages but reading them differently. He certainly indicates that he thinks LePore is also incorrect in some of her substance as well, but I take this to be secondary to his primary criticism, which as David notes (correctly in my view) is LePore’s attitude toward the Tea Party (“it is difficult to see just where he is going other than that he thinks Lepore is an academic snob”).

    Personally, I think the difficulty stems from Wood’s personal style, which come across as a bit “old school” – personal criticism between the lines instead of the full out frontal assault we’re used to seeing these days. Perhaps he should have been more direct in his criticism.

  20. Perhaps Lepore’s work would have benefited from the assistance of a sociologist … someone who might have been able to make a case that “Tea Partiers believe X” and “SES of Tea Partiers is, on average …” with some authority.

  21. The two views are not necessarily inconsistent: One can argue that the historical understanding of Tea Party members is incorrect (Lepore), while also recognizing the existence and, indeed, the immense ideological significance of popular memory and myth in the American historical consciousness (Wood). Lepore does not apparently describe and appreciate the mythical element of the historical imagination to Wood’s liking and so we have Wood taking her to task for it. Wood’s essential point is an important one (I expect no less from one of the greatest historians of our time) and derives from a very sophisticated historiographical understanding. The problem is that Lepore’s infraction does not justify the comprehensive critique that Wood has deemed it appropriate to level here, nor the blunt tone with which he levels it. The whole tenor of the review suggests larger issues — the tensions between “academic” historians and “popular” historians; between “scientific” history (which, in its modern form, emphasizes “complexity”) and imaginative/narrative history; and, perhaps most interesting, the generational tension between the Old Guard of American historiography and the rising rebellious youth.

Comments are closed.