Gordon Wood vs. the New Generation of Historians

In the latest edition of The Weekly Standard, Gordon Wood reviewed Bernard Bailyn’s newest book, a collection of essays entitled Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History. (It really is a fabulous read — particularly the essay “Context in History.”) Wood, himself a distinguished historian, author of two books that shaped the teaching, research, and discussion of early American history, and man partially responsible for the excellence of this scene, took to the conservative magazine’s pages to vociferously defend Bailyn from… obscurity? undue criticism? It is not altogether clear that Bailyn — winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, a Bancroft Prize, and responsible for single-handedly shifting the historiography of the American Revolution — needed such a stirring defense: he seems to be doing just fine.

However, Wood spent most of his review discussing and criticizing a new generation of historians. For Wood, “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.” This new generation “is no longer interested in how the United States came to be.” Rather than devote their energies to grand narratives of the nation, these historians are content to focus on the specialized and obscure. “Consequently,” he writes, “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.”

These remarks have caused quite a stir. Many took to Twitter to scoff/deride/offer sustained criticisms of Wood himself. Some also wrote separate posts about “Wood-gate”: here is a post on The Edge of the American West pitting the Wood of the Bailyn review versus the Wood who wrote Creation of the American Republic; here is John Fea with a defense of Wood; here is L.D. Burnett going after both Wood and Fea; and here is William Black at The Junto arguing that some of Wood’s criticisms have no basis in contemporary scholarship.

Wood, those who pushed back argue, is first of all, simply criticizing something that is not a reality. Bernard Bailyn is still very much studied, and quite highly thought of, in the history profession. The attacks on Bailyn that Wood quoted were from 1986 and 1988 — and even those reviews were sympathetic to the larger point Wood was making. Wood’s contention that academic journals no longer focus on the origins of the United States seem to cut against his own praise of Bailyn, whose work has broadened the study of early American history to include Trans-Atlantic studies. Much of the criticism could stem from views like those Michael Hattem wrote about at The Junto in the past. And some simply defended the practice of studying, researching, and writing on topics that Wood deemed “fragmentary and essentially anachronistic.”

These are serious and valid criticisms, and even a reader sympathetic to Wood could agree with them. However, as a sympathetic reader of Wood myself, there is much from Wood’s essay to be commended.

Many college students and history professors have become obsessed with inequality and white privilege — nary a graduate seminar can pass without this view being taken up in some fashion. And while I think the problem of focusing on narrow interests is more acute in the study of other historical eras, it is striking that Bailyn’s 1967 classic Ideological Origins of the American Revolution remains as the best big work for why the American Revolution happened (as even those who took part in a Junto podcast on Bailyn conceded, even though they were respectfully critical of his work). While narrow subjects are important for improving the practice of history at the margins, and it is of course appropriate to study race, sex, and a host of other topics that were neglected for so long, it is the big narrative works, with big, historiography-changing ideas, that really matter the most. (David Blight’s Race and Reunion comes to mind.) While the emphasis on specialization has led to necessary shifts and subtleties in the overall historiographical discussion, the fact that a near 50-year-old book still has such sway and power is both remarkable and damning.

The most penetrating of Wood’s critiques, however, was of the new generation’s lack of interest in “the pastness as the past.” It is no secret that the history profession is a bastion of liberal ideas and liberal people. In my own experience, I was the lone conservative in just about every seminar I took in graduate school. Many of my friends in the program called me the most sane conservative they had ever met (to which I would thank them, and think, you should probably meet more conservatives!). All too often, these biases seep into the writing of history — it is inevitable. Many works, particularly those writing on more recent periods, but even those on early America, are plagued by the author imputing his or her own values onto the time period being studied.

Which brings me back to Bailyn. It was Bailyn, in the aforementioned essay in his new book, who made Wood’s point about the new generation of historians far better than he did, and in a way preemptively chided Wood’s “get off my lawn” approach. Says Bailyn, “the present effort to penetrate into the substructures of thought and behavior, into the silent assumptions, the perceptual maps, the interior experiences that shape overt expressions and events goes beyond the boundaries of traditional historical study — and it is full of problems” (22). Bailyn quotes approvingly from Herbert Butterfield, criticizing the earlier Whig historians for trying to see the beginnings of modern progressive liberalism in their field of study, in the process justifying and celebrating it. For Bailyn, rather, one should be like Butterfield, retaining all the “chaos, the rich ambiguity of historical moments, life’s bafflements, the accidents and contingencies” (27).

Bailyn himself showed this in abundance in his own work. Ideological Origins worked so well, not because Bailyn attempted to justify the patriots, or pronounce their ideas as time-honored and ever-relevant, or denigrate the British or loyalists; it worked because he emphatically did not do that — one could see in his argument both how and why American colonists believed, for instance, that there was a grand ministerial conspiracy against them, and the reasons this belief helped lead them to action, while at the same time recognizing that there was in fact no conspiracy at all.

For, as both Wood and his detractors make clear, both sides are prone to presentism, to using the past for the means of the present, and to allowing it to shape, if not their overt argument, then their methodology and use of historiography. In reality, both sides are right. The focus on neglected issues like race and sex is quite important, as is the necessity to craft cogent stories, to make usable pasts, to write histories that can help us to understand who we are. As Bailyn says as he ends his essay, “History in the richest sense must be, I believe, what Butterfield said it should be, both a study and a story — that is, structural studies woven into narratives that explain the long-term process of change and the short-term accidents, decisions, and encounters which together changed the world from what it had been. But we must all still be storytellers, narrators — though of events lodged deep in their natural contexts” (52).

In the fight of Gordon Wood vs. the new generation of historians, the winner may actually be Bernard Bailyn.

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