In his new preface to the 1998 edition of The Creation of the American Republic, Gordon S. Wood writes:
I would not change the book’s central argument, and I could not make it shorter even if I wanted to. Although I have had requests over the years to turn out a popular abridged version, I have resisted the temptation. Anyhow, I would not know where to begin condensing the text.
While there are several things one might find irksome about this passage, I want to hone in on just one:
Gordon Wood resisted the temptation to write a popular history on the emergence of republican thinking as a uniquely American contribution to pragmatic political science.
This from the man who would later lecture Jill Lepore for “her academic contempt for the attempts of ordinary citizens to find some immediate and emotional meaning in the Revolution.”
I have been pondering Wood’s stoic resistance for weeks now. I do find the language of religious asceticism interesting. But I mostly can’t decide if his NYRB piece on Lepore’s Tea Party book undercuts or reinforces the position he takes here.
On the one hand, he seems to argue in the NYRB piece that the demythologizing work of critical history is not merely unwelcome but also unnecessary if people have already constructed a functional if slightly fictional understanding of the past. Memory is the “useful past” for the general public; history is for the professionals.
But behind this seemingly respectful division of labor between those who can handle the shock of uncovering a past that undermines their present pieties and those who cannot, lie, I think, two other ideas.
First, there is a faint note of hieratic contempt for the lumpish masses, a sense that writing a “popular abridged version” of his monograph would be a profanation of this near-perfect text — that wonderful book from which he could not imagine excising a single word. (Me: oh, hon, next time ask for help.) For it would not be enough simply to shorten the text; he would have to “popularize” it in some way, make it appealing to the general educated reader. Start doing that kind of slumming, and next thing you know you’ve won a Pulitzer. Perish the thought.
But I think there’s something else at work here.
I think that Wood “resisted the temptation” to write that popular abridged version of the republican synthesis because he knew exactly how useful such a past might prove to the very constituency that Lepore profiles: the anti-federal states’-righter nullificationists. It isn’t as if the Tea Party represents the first — or even the most formidable — manifestation of such thinking. You can’t blame someone for not wanting to be such a movement’s go-to interpreter of the American past.
But you can blame Wood, I think, for wanting to eat his cake and have it too, while at the same time waving a dismissive hand towards the supposedly myth-beholden public, needy for memory, saying, “Let them eat cake.”
There is something almost Biblical — in a bad way — about Wood’s unwillingness to write for the kind of audience he accuses Lepore of holding in contempt. I used the word “hieratic” above. Beyond gesturing toward the stratification of academic culture, and of various “brows” of culture more generally, the word invokes for me the parable of the “Good Samaritan.” In that parable, the priest is the first to come across the broken man, and the first to pass him by.
If the high priests of American revolutionary history will not leave the ivory tower and speak with the people, is it any wonder that false prophets like David Barton gain such a hearing?
Of course, someone might counter with the parable of pearls before swine, or holy food tossed to the dogs — but not someone who does not hold the general public in contempt. Since Wood calls upon Lepore to show sympathy, understanding, and generosity of spirit toward the public in its need for a useful past, one might assume that he would not resort to such thinking.
Still, Wood’s thinking is too small.
Instead of the parable of holy bread tossed to the dogs, I am reminded of the only miracle to appear in all four Gospels: the feeding of the multitudes. Some of the disciples come to Jesus and say, “The crowd is hungry — do something.” And (in at least one version of the story) Jesus replies: “You feed them.” And then he shows them how.
Moral of the story: if we care about “the multitudes,” or if we care about our identity as historians, we should find a way to broadly share our best work, even if that means breaking it.