, February 07, 2010
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What is legitimate history? (3.75 *s)
This is a collection of twenty-one reviews of historical books by Gordon Wood, distinguished colonial period historian, written over the last thirty years, previously appearing primarily in the New York Review of Books as well as in the New Republic and the William and Mary Quarterly. These reviews were selected from the many written by Wood to be instructive about his views on the proper approach to take in writing history. He is dismayed over the direction that history writing has taken over these last thirty years. Contrary to his style, historians are disinclined to write comprehensive, inclusive narrative history over a broad period that is readable by the educated public. The trend has been to write “scientific, monographic history” for fellow academics on a limited topic, focusing on a particular grouping. While that small-focus trend produces chaos in general historical understanding, it is legitimate unlike postmodernistic writing that regards truth as a particularly Western illusion. The only truth, in that view, is the exercise of power by hegemonic historical figures, though elaborately hidden. Superficial facts are largely a form of fiction. Wood also notes the insistence on promoting cultural diversity, emphasizing “identities and cultures of people in society,” which “increases fragmentation and disarray” in understanding the past.
In broad terms, many historical writers find it difficult to avoid presentism in their writing. That is, present-day political, economic, and social understandings or theories are misapplied to the past. Or the past is used to explain the present. Closely related is the concept of anachronistic distortion. Wood is especially troubled over introducing fiction into historical writing, that is, imagined conversations, thoughts, and actions. Ironically, he contends that historians can often provide perspectives that are not available to actual or imagined participants. In other words, such fictions undermine serious history. He also finds that non-historians such as sociologists or political scientists are prone to find in history that which supports their ideas, the error of which is compounded when they view themselves as historians.
Writing history is a subtle craft. Wood hardly denies the difficulties of capturing the past, but insists that any understandings be grounded in the context of the times, even accepting what appear to be the “blindness and folly” of the times. While history once focused on key events, figures, like generals and statesmen, and institutions, he is not at all dismissive of a trend towards writing social history, an area long neglected, though cultural history stretches that tolerance. While history cannot be directly translated into the present to explain or to set out a course of action, history can instill wisdom, humility, and skepticism, which may have their usefulness in the present.
Some of the interesting books and reviews:
James MacGregor Burns’ THE VINEYARD OF LIBERTY anachronistically attempts to inject a nationwide radical movement, consisting of recent immigrants, poor whites, Indians, and free blacks, into the pre-Civil War period, which only awaited a transcendent leader to lead that movement against an “elite monopolization of property and profits,” thereby avoiding the War. Clearly, there was no such nascent movement.
THE GLORIOUS CAUSE: THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION, 1763-1789, a volume in the distinguished Oxford History of the US, by Robert Middlekauff, is an example of a surface-level narrative that filters all activity of the period through a “glorious cause” paradigm, while giving short shrift to deep-seated forces and selecting, ignoring, or misinterpreting events as they do or do not support his theme. According to Wood, the book “plays into the hands of those who argue that historical narrative is just another form of fiction.”
Simon Schama’s DEAD CERTAINTIES is a self-proclaimed experiment in narration, but according to Wood is an example of history as fiction. The book includes imaginary first-person accounts of the Battle of Quebec in 1759, where General James Wolfe died, and a fictionalized account of the notorious murder of George Parkman in 1849 by a Harvard professor over an unpaid debt. Wood does not deny that history writing requires creativity, but fiction undermines the authenticity and credibility of a work of history.
In THE AGE OF FEDERALISM by Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, Wood is concerned in this grand narrative that the authors often are sidetracked by people and events that “are not just described, but analyzed, examined, turned over and over, …. , in astonishing detail,” at the expense of ignoring important events, both small and significant. Wood also notes their difficulty in understanding the thinking of the new Republican Party led by Jefferson and Madison. Nonetheless, the book gets fairly high marks from Wood, who acknowledges his debt to their work as he writes the Oxford volume that overlaps the Federalist period.
IF MEN WERE ANGELS: JAMES MADISON AND THE HEARTLESS EMPIRE OF REASON by Richard K. Matthews is, according to Wood, an example of a political theorist writing history who sees “the past simply as an anticipation of our present, and thus they tend to hold people in our past responsible for a future that was, in fact, inconceivable to them.” In this case Matthews’s attempts to convince that Madison was a prototype liberal “committed implicitly to the market principle of possessive individualism.” A more nuanced view, as per Wood, is that Madison was not dramatically different from Jefferson, an agrarian radical according to Matthews, which is also an overstatement.
Wood’s book has mixed appeal. The books reviewed are secondary to his agenda, not to mention, some are somewhat obscure and dated. Many of the reviews are themselves quite informative, but twenty-one reviews of early American history can get tedious, in addition to the frequent shifting of subjects. It is interesting to see criticism so vigorously applied to the works of fellow historians; that must make for interesting OAH meetings. Wood is a traditional historian. As to whether postmodernism has much to say about the past, this is not the book for a balanced opinion on that matter. For those interested in all of the titles of the books reviewed by Wood, the “search inside the covers” feature on this site shows the book titles in the index under the names of the three publications noted above. It probably takes a fairly highly motivated historical reader to appreciate this book.