Gordon Wood, Jill Lepore, and the Tea Party

First impression [UPDATE: I meant of Wood’s whole piece, not just the part in front of the firewall [[UPDATE: OK, that’s not what a firewall is (IT figuratively); I was just copping imprecise language from hnn.us]]; I read the Wood piece in something called print (HNN complains about NYRB “firewall” here, Wed. 1/5/10)].

Anyway, as I was saying, first impression:

Gordon Wood’s review, in the latest New York Review of Books, of Jill Lepore’s book on the Tea Party, The Whites of Their Eyes, looks to me almost fantastically, even goofily, unfair.

Haven’t seen any comment anywhere else yet [UPDATE: Well, now I have, especially here and here (for the latter, scroll down to “Wed., 1/6”)], but this is a moment, as far as I’m concerned: two ultra-credentialed, famous, Ivy-league historians of early America (for those who don’t know, Lepore is at Harvard, author of New York Burning, among other things, and a founder of Common Place; Wood, at Brown, is Wood), at least a generation apart, both committed to bringing real history to general readers, are commenting on the populist right’s claim on founding period, and taking — so Wood says — dramatically different attitudes toward that claim, with what Wood sees as important ramifications for history and memory.

This may sound funny coming from me, since I roped in Lepore, in her role as a New Yorker staff writer, to my Boston Review criticism of liberal responses to the Tea Party. But that was in her role as as a New Yorker staff writer: my point was that nobody in that world, even including Lepore (whom I contrast with other liberal commentators like Frank Rich and Chip Berlet), and certainly including me in Boston Review, is capable of capturing Tea Party ethos for readers of that sort of publication, thanks to modes of discourse we must necessarily rely on in trying to do so (better to send the Hunter Thompson who was dying to hang out with the Hells Angels, the Elizabeth Hardwick who excoriated George Wallace as declasse, anybody but us…).

Wood accuses Lepore of making active fun, and fun only, of Tea Party views of history — a startling mis-reading, I think — and then gets into some very tricky and potentially revealing stuff about popular memory. That stuff needs unpacking, but for now: In his essay, and between the lines, Wood is reminding me strangely of Edmund Morgan, in a very early (1950’s?) essay, in which Morgan essentially called for an updated, qualified revival of Bancroft romanticism in American history. [UPDATE: Yes: William & Mary Quarterly, Ser. 3, No. 14, 1957.] Hence the ensuing work of Edmund Morgan. Reminding me strangely, I said. More on this to come … [UPDATE: Starting with here: John Bell’s Facebook board on the topic.]

But for one thing: Can we possibly at long last rule out the tendentious use of the word “concedes” when referring to something an opponent actually asserts? (Wood makes use of this tortured ploy more than once in his review.) I will if you will.

[UPDATE: If I’d known this post would get so many views, I might have unpacked Wood’s reflections more thoroughly here. By the time I work it all out, the moment will have passed … But I do think there’s fertile ground for a review, somewhere, of differences between Wood and Lepore as a way of looking more generally at how certain kinds of American history have developed over the past generation or two. In that context, people might want to check out Lepore’s review of Wood’s book Empire of Liberty. There’s an interesting long-term argument going on between these two (who may be fast friends in real life for all I know…).]

[UPDATE: More on all this, right here on this blog, here and here.]

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11 thoughts on “Gordon Wood, Jill Lepore, and the Tea Party

  1. Nice link. I’ve been following Wood closely in NYRB for years but had totally missed this. And Dead Certainties is such a interesting book! Yes, Wood is busy drawing lines, and maybe some of them need to be drawn — but that makes it all the more interesting that he’s now in a sense defending Tea Party history, or popular memory and heritage, from what he characterizes as Lepore’s academic disdain. John Bell has started a Facebook discussion board on the whole Wood-Lepore thing: http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?topic=16888&post=63296&uid=179181182147#!/topic.php?uid=179181182147&topic=16888

  2. If today’s Tea Party is responsible for no more than inspiring a more thorough discussion of the event now described as the Tea Party, then good for them. Lots of new books out last year.

    Among other things, I’m thoroughly enjoying the new focus on what one Amazon reviewer of Lapore’s Whites of Their Eyes refers to as the “obscure details of obscure individual lives during Revolutionary times” – apparently to be derogatory.

    Like in Declaration, bringing to life some of the tens of thousands of participants in the revolution that are not the founders per se – the often nameless American insurgents as T. H. Breen refers to them – gives a far greater perspective on the events of the time while taxing the more mythic representations that somewhat blur or erase the uncomfortable details (apparently “riding the pony” was not just a children’s birthday party entertainment).

    When I read a book like Mccullough’s 1776, which I thoroughly enjoyed, the army and the rebels are almost like the painted indistinct background of a play – there to subtly support the main characters but with no real form.

    In our everyday life we struggle with politics, religion, labor-class identification, family and our own perception of how we fit into the world. It’s only fair that we understand the messiness of our history and the parts that these personal struggle play.

    Oh yeah, it’s also good to identify the downsides of the attempted appropriation of our national myths for narrow partisan goals – and at the same time get so much of it wrong.

    I don’t know about you, but I’m off to pop some corn for this one. Let the Titans compete!

  3. Yeah, I’d always heard it as “riding the rail” too. I googled “riding the pony” and apparently this was a commonly used term at the time and apparently used primarily in military discipline (this is only Google knowledge and may or may not be 100%).

    I have to admit that I always thought that “riding the rail” was rather innocuous – not so much now. That goes for tarring and feathering too. Pretty brutal way of convincing an obstinate neighbor that they should give your cause greater consideration.

  4. For good stuff on the English village roots of rail-riding and related practices, check out E.P. Thompson’s essay “Rough Music.” And for American versions like “shivaree” “skimmington,” an essay by Alfred Young in a book called “Riot and Revelry in Early America,” edited by William Pencak. Wild action all around. I give a graphic description of tar-and-feathering in “The Whiskey Rebellion.” Definitely not a prank.

  5. Pingback: Wood-Lepore Controversy, or Shooting Fish in Barrel « Andrew Smith's Blog

  6. Pingback: Department of Snark: Or; Who Put A Tack On Gordon Wood's Chair? - Tenured Radical - The Chronicle of Higher Education

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