U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Bread for the Hungry

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.

19 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I think you’ve hit on a central conundrum of Wood’s argument here. It’s not that he’s opposed to popular history per se (much of his later career has been in the service of the very genre he professes to disdain); he just would rather not see academic history popularized. He gave a talk a few years ago in which he essentially argued that we need national myths, and that we should be teaching them to K-12 students because they aren’t sophisticated enough to understand complex historiography. Once students reach college you can then puncture the myth.

    In that context, I think his position on Lepore (minus the gratuitous sexism) is actually consistent with his stand in Creation. That is, his problem is with trying to bring academic thought processes to the masses, which he seems to consider a fruitless endeavor.

  2. I read Wood’s chastisement of Lepore rather differently. It seemed to me that he was saying that left-wing historians who have been using their scholarship to advance their political agendas for decades are essentially being hypocrites when they whine about people on the right returning the favor. I haven’t read Lepore’s book, and it’s been a while since I read Wood’s review. But that’s how I took it at the time.

    I also disagree with your malign interpretation of Wood’s reasons for refusing to abridge Creation. I doubt he thought it was some sort of esoteric knowledge that had to kept from being “vulgarized,” to borrow the French term. It’s as likely that his reluctance owed to a sense that he’d do a lousy job of abridging it, or even to a sense of parental proprietorship: no one’s chopping up my baby! Authors are funny that way. Anyway, it’s a risky game attributing motives in the absence of evidence, and there’s little evidence to establish that Wood ever thought along the lines you suggest. Not that I can see, anyway, having just re-read the preface to look for it.

  3. As an early Americanist, and therefore having a strong familiarity with Wood’s entire body of work, I have to say that you seem to have read this wrong. You propose that Wood’s refusal to write an abridged version of Creation of the American Republic is due to his refusal go “slumming” with the “lumpish masses” for whom he holds a “hieratic contempt.” While the work remains Wood’s most important contribution, he has often described his dismay over the way it was interpreted. That is, Wood was never a strong proponent of what later came to be called the “republican synthesis.” He, like many, felt it was overdone and overplayed (especially in other contexts). This seems to me one more logical explanation for Wood’s lack of desire to abridge the book for a popular audience, rather than a personal disdain for that audience.

    After all, Wood has written numerous works for a popular audience including “Revolutionary Characters,” “The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin,” and, especially, his very short and highly useful Modern Library volume, “The American Revolution: A History,” which has an entire section on state constitutions and another on republicanism. Both are concisely written and excellent summations of the topics for the lay reader. And of course there is “Radicalism of the American Revolution” which was also aimed at a popular audience. I’ve also not yet mentioned that he just spent 10 years working on “Empire of Liberty” for the Oxford History of the United States series, also aimed at a popular audience. The man is now 79 years old. Why would he want to spend the little time he has left revising older work (or have wanted to do so even 10 years ago)? That would be very much out of character for him.

    In addition to those works, Wood has spent the better part of the last 20 years on a historian’s version of Bob Dylan’s Never Ending Tour, constantly traveling throughout not only the USA but also to Russia and China to speak about the American Revolution to groups and organizations large and small. He’s also appeared in half a dozen large-scale television documentaries about the Revolution in the last 25 years. One could argue that no academic historian of early America has more consistently engaged with the public over the last 50 years than Wood. Hence, your argument that Wood is a “high priest of American Revolutionary history” who “will not leave the ivory tower to speak with the people” does not make any sense at all.

    While I wouldn’t dare defend Wood’s NYRB piece about Lepore (or most his NYRB pieces, for that matter), one of the things that has stood out about Wood throughout his career is his apolitical personality and approach to history. He has purposefully avoided talking politics publicly precisely because he didn’t want anyone to conflate his own personal politics with his work. We can argue about whether that is actually possible but Wood has often been quote by liberals and conservatives, of the former, most notably, Newt Gingrich.

    All this is not to say that I don’t agree with your conclusion. I do, wholeheartedly. I think you are exactly right that we should all be willing to make our work as broadly accessible as possible. In this political moment, that goes especially for early Americanists. However, if I can end my career having reached as broad a public as Wood has done, I will consider myself successful in having achieved that.

  4. Thanks for the comments.

    Michael, I can see the relevance of your referring to Wood’s long practice of addressing general audiences on the subject of history, but I don’t see the relevance of referring to his age.

    No, I don’t want him to sit down and condense Creation right now — I wish he’d done it twenty years ago! But I wouldn’t presume to suggest that such labor is somehow beyond his present capabilities — though I agree with you that it is probably beyond his present interests. He seemed interested enough in the NYRB piece on Lepore — it was wrong-headed, but it was sharp, and age has nothing to do with either its wrongness or its sharpness.

    I can put up with a lot of misreadings of my meanings and motives, but I’m not going to have someone even hint that I’m being inconsiderate of someone’s age. That’s not me. If Wood didn’t seem game, I wouldn’t have written the post.

    Varad, see above for my reading of Wood’s piece on Lepore.

    Joseph, thanks for the input on Wood’s engagement with K-12 teachers, and what he had to say. I think the term “hieratic” fits. But it doesn’t bother me if people disagree.

  5. 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.”

    Ms. Lepore’s book is an abominable piece of partisan journalism disguised as history. Wood was being gentle.

  6. No, we’re not. Because I didn’t do it the first time — though it was among the first things I read on this blog. FWIW, at the time, I tended to take Wood’s view of the matter. Live and learn.

    If I hadn’t already been thinking about the “hieratic” v. the “egalitarian” within academe, the titanic clash between Protestant-inflected secular epistemology and the medieval heritage of the university, it probably wouldn’t have occurred to me to write this post at all.

    But I have been pondering these and related problems lately, somewhat in connection with my reading of John Guillory (which I am assuming Tim is going to keep posting about ’til he gets through the book), but more in connection with how ill-suited I am in many ways to the culture of the academy, and this seemed like an interesting way to think about these things more concretely.

    In any case, I imagine that Gordon Wood’s reputation will survive my mild censure. I appreciate the thoughtful, challenging comments in response, and I let the rest go.

  7. “I can put up with a lot of misreadings of my meanings and motives, but I’m not going to have someone even hint that I’m being inconsiderate of someone’s age. That’s not me.”

    L.D., you don’t REALLY think that I was implying that you were being “inconsiderate of his age,” do you? The comment was clearly about Wood’s inclinations toward doing new work rather than revisiting old work (in his writings, anyway).

    “I’m not going to have…”

    Re-read my comment and think again whether your reply to my comment warranted that kind of reaction.

    As I said in my comment, I agree wholeheartedly with your broader premise, I just don’t agree with you that Wood is an example of a historian seeking to wall themselves off from the public.

  8. Michael, I don’t know why you brought up Wood’s age in the first place, but you went out of your way to emphasize his seeming dotage, to the point of suggesting that he has “little time” left. Whoa there! Let’s not kill off the Father just yet, okay? Jacques Barzun just passed away at the age of 102 or 103, and many scholars are active as long as they’re alive. Wood is not some has-been academic out to pasture — he is an active historian, pre-eminent in his field, one of the greats. So I’m not sure what you’re up to in bringing up his age, but it’s not where I would have taken the discussion.

    However, since you did take the conversation there, I wanted to be very clear about my thoughts on the matter. Because the internet is forever. And while I’m fine with someone being able to track down my horribly unfair reading of a few passages from Gordon Wood’s work, I’d be ticked if they concluded that “well, she doesn’t have any sympathy for the challenges he faces at his age.” Like I said: that’s not me.

  9. Wood’s reasoning for not abridging Creation reminds me of a passage from the Afterword of the 2003 edition of Pocock’s Machiavellian Moment: “It has been written in a complex and discursive style which has not been easy reading; I can defend this only by saying that the story is not meant to be easy to follow and that clarifying it is more a matter of bringing its complexities to light than of seeking to simplify it.”

    So fitting complex stories and arguments into a limited amount of space, in accessible language, is difficult. What’s new? Why do some people think they are exempt from this task? We all have not only a need, but an obligation to make our arguments as clear and accessible as possible, and moreover, if you cannot capture, in clear and relatively succinct (ie, 300 pages rather than 500+) language what you are trying to argue, you’re either not clear on it yourself or, you have other motivations for avoiding to do so. I didn’t buy Pocock’s excuse the first time I read it, and I don’t buy Wood’s similar excuse now. I’m not sure exactly what is going on with Wood’s resistance about abridging Creation — as Michael pointed out, he has been engaged with the public in many other ways for years, including the book “Revolutionary Characters,” which was tailor made for the “yay Founding Fathers!!” popular market (which is why I hardly think we can describe Wood as successfully pretending to be apolitical, although he certainly tries) and contained a hefty amount of self-plagiarism. But whatever the precise reasons behind his motivations, I agree with Burnett here that *something* smells very much of some version of elitism.

  10. Thanks for this comment, Robin Marie. Triangulating that with Joseph’s comment above, I think there is a kind of consensus that Wood is “elitist” in the sense of drawing a sharp line around academic writing for a scholarly audience. It is hieratic, protecting certain kinds of texts against the profanation of being, say, edited for length.

    Joseph’s comment above was helpful in addressing my basic conundrum: is this or is this not a consistent view of Wood across these two texts. Joseph says it is consistent — that “minus the gratuitous sexism” in the piece on Lepore, Wood is not being hypocritical in the Lepore piece when compared to his own earlier statement on abridging his key work. I’m still undecided on this, but it’s a reading worth considering.

    The excerpt from “The Machiavellian Moment” is illuminating, given that both projects end up informing the “republican synthesis.” What is it with these guys on this subject? What historian (besides Pocock or Wood?) can get away with “the story was not meant to be easy to follow”? Again, the word that comes to mind is “hieratic.”

  11. Comments from a yesteryear USIH blog post discussed the politics of populism in critical reviews of “clear and accessible” history. If still available, the NYRB “Machiavellian Moments” exchange between Pocock and Wood also showcased the conflicts of consensual elitism and politics of the apolitical in “republican synthesis.”

  12. Invariant varieties of contextualism hopefully do not require prolix and protracted publications, or the conflation of the two for that matter.

  13. JT, sorry it took so long to get your comment out of the queue. I will look for / look up the Wood / Pocock exchange. Just did a quick google search and found Wood’s review of Diggins’ Lost Soul…. If that’s the review essay you’re talking about, it is paywalled, but I might have access through my uni library — will check tomorrow.

    I looked at the old comment thread, which seems to me more in the same vein as arguments we’ve had recently on this blog (last 6 months?) about “elitism” in intellectual history as considering only certain sources / texts / subjects as worthy of the historian’s notice. That is different, I think, from the elitism of considering the texts we *produce* to be too fine, good and perfect for popularization — though I suppose the second stance could be a mimetic echo of the first.

    Anyway, thanks for the comment and the essay reference.

  14. The citation is “Machiavellian Moments” NYRB 47:16 (2000). The editors may have removed the heated exchange (I’m uncertain why). Scholars still cite the debate in publications. Also, I mentioned the comment section because the previous Wood post resulted in a tangential thread. Thanks for your help.

  15. JT on July 8, 2013 at 10:44 pm said:
    The citation is “Machiavellian Moments” NYRB 47:16 (2000). The editors may have removed the heated exchange (I’m uncertain why). Scholars still cite the debate in publications. Also, I mentioned the comment section because the previous Wood post resulted in a tangential thread. Thanks for your help.

    Exactly. Well done, sir.

  16. JT, I’m not sure how I helped, but you’re welcome.

    In connection with the discussion on this thread, I saw that Edmund Morgan has died. The NYT obit (which will be paywalled for those who have reached their 10-article limit for the month, I think) spends a fair amount of time on Morgan’s writing style. It probably doesn’t spend enough time, historiographically speaking, on American Slavery, American Freedom. But the comments of Pauline Maier on Morgan’s craftsmanship as a historian of ideas are worth a read.

    Here is a link to Morgan’s obituary: Edmund S. Morgan. He was 97.

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