Wood, Lepore, and the Tea Party: a Comment Intended for John Fea’s Blog

For some reason I’m having huge trouble responding, with Blogger, to comments on this issue at John Fea’s excellent blog, where much discussion is ongoing. A virtue of the FB board would be to address the problem of diffusion I complain about below — but only John Bell and I are posting there, so no help! This comment will make sense only if you also check out both of John Fea’s posts on the topic, and the comments, here and here:

OK, now I’ve mucked up this thread with removals to correct inadvertent repetitions, then failed to post something I thought I posted. Semi-conscious resistance? It dismays me when comments full of interesting ideas, challenges to previous comment, etc., proliferate in scrolldown threads, fragmented across multiple posts on multiple blogs, even as new topics pull our attention up to the home pages. Diffusion may be part of what’s good about blogging, but sometimes the byplay just defeats me.

Yet I appreciate the space dedicated to this issue here (even amid some very interesting reporting from AHA!). Commenting below on this post and its comments and the other post and its comments on the same topic:

John Fea, I’ll send you a copy of Inventing American History, the MIT Press book from which my reflections on Wood are drawn (and I’m looking forward to reading your book). The continuum you shrewdly identify between Holton and Wood is what concerns me in both authors’ work: both think there was a 1780’s backlash, associated with Federalism, against emergent democracy; I don’t think it was a backlash — to me, elite fear and loathing of populist democracy had never truly wavered (that’s despite Holton’s citations) — and I don’t think anti-democratic efforts were by any means Federalist alone. But that’s what my (other) books are about (and I’m trying to avoid writing a book on your blog!). [UPDATE, here on my blog only: I should add that I think Holton’s Unruly Americans is indispensable reading for everyone interested in these matters.]

Wood’s work is so nuanced and complex, and so well written, that it would take a career to really dissent from it, but my endnotes to those same books probably make clear that I read Wood — plenty audaciously, I know, given my outsider’s status — as ultimately (deep breath) overdetermined, tendentious, and strangely motivated historiographically.[UPDATE, here on my blog only: For leftish criticism of Wood, see the work of Terry Bouton, Alfred Young, and others; an interesting right-wing critique is here. Many along the “sane, reasonable” liberal-to-conservative spectrum, where people of mutually defined good will supposedly can disagree, will conclude that if the serious left and serious right both dissent from Wood, he must be doing something right. I get it, but I don’t see things that way.]

I don’t think because Lepore criticized Empire of Liberty, Wood is now indulging in some kind of invidious payback. A fascinating argument between important, brilliant, liberal historians is taking the form of mutual book reviews, one way historians argue. What I was calling, off the top of my head, goofily unfair is Wood’s wholesale, even stubborn misreading, as mere journalistic snark and academic disdain, of what I take to be the real intention of Lepore’s book.

Tom van Dyke: Wow. I’d have to know what you mean by almost everything you say in order to respond effectively. But risibility and squawking being in the ear of the beholder (lack of guts too), I’ll just say that you and I are never going to agree on whether a Lepore is somehow failing, in your terms, to do legit history. And, OK — if you think I’ve made up those 1776 Pennsylvania radicals, or have exaggerated their significance, etc., well, that would accord with majority opinion these past 235 years. Stick with John Adams and Morrison (and, ultimately, Wood), and you’ll never go wrong. And that list of academic topics you present as absurd certainly has nothing to do with me.

Since when — final outburst — is Gordon Wood a defender of this “old-fashioned” popular memory thing, Tea Party style? How many Tea Party activists has he gone out and talked to? And if this was always the bottom-line burden of his work, then it’s just as I always suspected: he’s balancing a gigantic pyramid of brilliant academic apparatus on the tip of insisting, albeit in a billion times’ smarter and more modern way, on poorly criticized ideas about America’s providential greatness that go back, circuitously, through Morgan to Bancroft and before (bringing Bailyn in, not inappropriately, along the way). Giving Wood, in the present context, some strange bedfellows in the politics of history.

Everyone’s read Nietzsche on this stuff, right? Critical history / monumental history / antiquarian history? …

2 thoughts on “Wood, Lepore, and the Tea Party: a Comment Intended for John Fea’s Blog

  1. William: Great thoughts. You have inspired me to not only read your MIT book, but also your new book on Independence. Stay tuned. (And I will get you a copy of the Christian America book when it arrives).

    And yes, this has been a very strange thread. I think I may have mucked it up by writing a post on my blog instead of just going to Bell’s Facebook page or responding here. Well, at least some conversation is happening!

  2. William, since I’m mentioned here, I’ll repeat the substance of my position that I wrote over at Mr. Sehat’s blog:

    Ms. Lepore did not accept the necessary rigor of establishing that the Tea Party’s normative understanding of itself as any more than figurative, metaphorical and analogous to the original.

    And so, there has been little effort made on the part of her supporters to defend the book on its own merits, because it cannot be defended on a scholarly basis as it lacks the necessary rigor.

    It’s opinion journalism, based on anecdote. The Tea Partiers are ignorant and don’t know their history. Which is fine. For opinion journalism.

    But I would argue they were well aware that what are perhaps their biggest beefs, the ballooning deficit and encroaching “socialism” [read: Obamacare] were not issues at the first Tea Party. Further, the original was an act of destruction and civil disobedience; the modern version certainly was not.

    The issue here to me seems to be Wood, and the battle for history and how to do it. If Lepore’s book is how to do it, by anecdote rather than attempting an empirical search for the normative, then all history will become opinion journalism.

    Further, I have substantive beefs with the Lepore book like
    “Austin Hess was offended at being called a racist; he said we lived in a post-racial world. I took him at his word and wanted to be sympathetic with him.”

    Well, that’s nice, since her book says that Hess’ girlfriend is black.

    “But that’s why they love the American Revolution, because they see it as a white, pre-racial movement, which of course it wasn’t. But that’s sort of the point of the book, and why I gave it the title it has [The Whites of Their Eyes].”

    Well, that’s a relief, sort of. But I wonder how many people will take the title to imply racism.

    As for your own approach to history, that is a separate issue, but I do believe it underlies this controversy, aside from Ms. Lepore’s allies in the academy circling the wagons.

    I might have made Wood’s argument about myth and memory a bit differently, that it’s entirely appropriate to appeal to our better angels and principles as Frederick Douglass did, and perhaps such exhortations are more responsible for our “progress” than rubbing our noses in our historical failures to live up to them.

    Or to give disproportionate credit to the more prophetic Roger Williamses and Levellers and the like. This is not to say they weren’t prophetic, they were. However, it’s far from certain that their sentiments weren’t shared by others who simply thought it would be disastrous to force such radical change at the time.

    Indeed, Douglass—at least publicly—came to exactly that view, that he had seen Lincoln as a man who moved too slowly, but came to appreciate that Lincoln was moving us as fast he could.

    This is not to say we whitewash slavery and the Trail of Tears, etc. and sexism and homophobia and the rest of the laundry list. But the academy being what it is, I see no danger of such a whitewash.

    Thx for including me in the discussion, William. So far, all I’ve seen is echo chambers, looking at both sides of the same side. I’ll forward this to John’s blog, where it can die of loneliness. Previous versions appear at the American Creation blog should anyone be interested in discussion there.

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