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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