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. Continue reading

Facebook discussion board on Wood, Lepore, and Tea Party

Those interested in ideas about critical history and popular memory, raised by Gordon Wood’s New York Review of Books piece on Jill Lepore’s The Whites of Their Eyes, can comment on a Facebook discussion board dedicated to the topic, established by John Bell of Boston 1775. It would be good to see other interested parties weighing in there! The Wood review itself is here.

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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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