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.