Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Gordon Wood Faults Historian Jill Lepore or being (wait for it) . . . a historian!

David Sehat puzzles over Gordon Wood's negative review of Jill Lepore's The Whites of Their Eyes

Enter Lepore. The Whites of their Eyes is, as much of anything, a meditation of the uses of history and an objection to the uses to which the Tea Party movement has put the American past. Lepore objects to their "antihistory" that conflates the past with the present and ultimately leads to "historical fundamentalism." This, I think, is the ultimate source of conflict between Lepore and Wood. Lepore spends most of the book offering various stories of the late eighteenth century that undermine a triumphant view of the period--the ways in which slaves, women, the insane, and the poor struggled in a frankly illiberal era--in order to show the strangeness of the past and the limitations that that strangeness imposes when trying to put the past to work in a nationalist celebration or a political movement. But Wood is, in fact, engaged in the nationalist celebration as a central component of his intellectual project. He believes that the United States is in some sense unique in providing a model of liberty for the world, and he looks to the founding moment, much as the Tea Partiers do, in a way that Smith calls "transhistorical."

His review bears out this tension. Wood begins by claiming that "Americans seem to have a special need for these authentic historical figures [such as Washington or Jefferson] in the here and now." But instead of taking this need seriously, Wood complains that Lepore, "an expert at mocking," does what academic historians do by "making fun of the Tea party." In her criticism of the movement's historical malapropisms and strained political gestures, Wood suggests that the book's implicit question is: "Don't these people realize just how silly they are?" This academic elitism further suggests to Wood a misunderstanding of history for "ordinary Americans" that someone like Lepore just can't seem to get.

This is where his review gets really weird. He never quite admits that the Tea Party's history is bad, or that their stance toward it is wrong-headed. Instead, Wood shifts into a discussion of memory, as opposed to history, and the emotional requirement of memory for, again, "ordinary Americans." As opposed to critical history, Wood asserts that ordinary Americans need a variety of mythical interpretations by which "humans have sought to sanctify their societies, buttress their institutions, and invest their lives and their nations with a sense of destiny." At one point Wood suggests that "Lepore is correct in believing that historians have a professional obligation to dispel myths and legends," but then he spends the next eight paragraphs trying to show the emotional thinness of critical history, which seems to suggest that professional obligations run contrary to human need--a somewhat bizarre stance for an intellectual and an educator. Since I've just published a book that seeks to dispel a myth (The Myth of Religious Freedom) I read this section of the review with great interest, but the more I think about it, the less it makes sense. It seems to be nothing so much as an intellectual defense of anti-intellectualism. He seems, against all protestations to the contrary, to be faulting the historian Jill Lepore for being (wait for it) . . . a historian!

Text emphasis my doing…


jimmiraybob said...

When I was reading the post and got to this, "Since I've already expressed my admiration for Lepore's book, I read the review with a certain amount of consternation that grew to bafflement and finally culminated in a small amount of outrage and incredulity," my first thought was, OK, now the gloves come off.

But then I remembered Brad's earlier comment on a post here at AC, "This is history, not hockey."

Now I'm struggling for a replacement metaphor. :)

Tom Van Dyke said...

Lepore wasn't being an historian atall, she was being an opinion journalist, a highly partisan one.

I really don't want to start up with you, Mr. Naum, but you're featuring a "review" [Sehat's] of a review [Wood's] of a book you apparently haven't read [Lapore's].

This is a hockey game report, mostly that there was a hockey game and who played.

I read about 1/3 of Lepore's book and caught her on C-SPAN plugging it. I read a fraction of Wood's review, as it's behind a firewall.

I have heard very little in specifics about Wood's criticism, but much criticism of Wood himself.

I can say that I found Lepore's book an improper mix of journalism and some historical factoids. She made no effort at scholarly rigor: she merely talked to some Tea Partiers in the Boston area, and then questioned their history in the most literal sense. This is not doing history: it is polemic.

But the real problem is that the substance of the matter won't and can't be discussed atall. There are not enough particulars on offer anywhere to the interested but even-handed observer.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Lepore's book preview at Google Books.

For those interested in some substance about the matter.

Naum said...


I've read Lepore's articles and enough excerpts from Lepore's book, probably as much as you have…

Sorry, but I'll take Sehat's evaluation over a full read of Lepore over your impressions (BTW, have finished //Myth of Religious Freedom// -- it is an excellent read)… …and he's not alone, as another historian (Hogeland, if that is really him) as chimed in agreement too…

I like Wood, enjoyed //Empire of Liberty// and //Creation of the American Republic//, but just as I'm about to finish the Chernow volume on Washington, these steer close to being outright hagiographies, wrapped in nationalistic fervor, American apologetics…

Tom Van Dyke said...

Mr. Naum, I'm not surprised you agree with Lepore's opinion, since it's congenial to your own partisanship. However, my argument is that it's merely opinion, as she did not accept the necessary rigor of establishing that the Tea Party's normative understanding of itself as any more than figurative and metaphorical.

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. The Tea Partiers are ignorant and don't know their history.

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.

What's really going on here is a counterattack on Wood. As for Mr. Hogeland [and perhaps Mr. Sehat, with whom I'm less familiar], I would expect nothing other than their approaches, as there is a war in the academy vs. Wood's "normative" approach. That is actually the more interesting thing.

I have specific criticisms of Lepore's book, her vague allegations of racism and a contentious readingh of Madison and Jefferson as some sort of living constitutionalists [p. 112, 113 or so, iirc]. But this controversy is so far away from the actual merits of Lepore's book that I believe substance is impossible.

[And I'm not really referring to you, Naum, but academic websites I visit. They are completely unwilling to defend Lepore's approach, method, and even specifics like p. 112. It's culture war all the way.]

Jason Pappas said...

Of course, the average person will and must make mistakes about history. We can’t all be professional historians. I applaud civic minded individuals who at least try to learn from history. What good is history if it stays in the academic closet?

One of the important lessons I’ve learn from reading the Founding period is that the Founders, including the intellectual leaders, weren’t tenured faculty of any college (except Witherspoon) but citizens who took serious their civic obligations. They had a passion for history and, yes, they often got it wrong. But they debated and challenged each other, made mistakes, reconsidered, and in my opinion they did damn well considering the circumstances.

Constructive criticism would be welcomed as we can all improve our knowledge but my first impression from reading Lapore’s book (or what's online), Wood’s review and Sehat’s review is that Lapore isn’t interested in the average person making use of history.

Tom Van Dyke said...

It's funny, nobody at the "academic establishment" blogs is the least bit interested in the Chris Rodda-style fisking I gave Lepore. I had even more than I printed here.

I suppose I should have mainpaged it all, but my heart just isn't in polemics.

Thank you for your reply, Mr. Alpers. My main point is the insufficiency if not invalidity of Ms. Lepore's method as defensible scholarship.

Since you chose to address the "originalism" issue:

Does the Tea Party normatively see the Constitution as some sort of Bible? How can her method [or lack of one] establish that?

Further, what are the Good Professor's bona fides on constitutional law and history? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

She can deride the Tea Party's understanding of history as sophomoric, but could she hold up her end against originalism against a Hadley Arkes? It is she who seems to argue from authority against it, citing unnamed scholars who find originalism "risible."

Further, I object strongly to her reading of Jefferson and Madison on p. 113, which is contentious if not downright quote-farming---it conflates their openness to change with advocating a fungible or "evolving" method of interpreting the constitution. ["Living" constitution if you will, as opposed to originalism.]

Had Wood been doing a fisking---he was making
a larger argument instead---he might have written this in rebuttal,
which few Tea Partiers would disagree with, and which looks entirely
like "originalism" to me:

"I entirely concur in the propriety of resorting to the sense in which
the Constitution was accepted and ratified by the nation. In that sense
alone it is the legitimate Constitution. And if that be not the guide
in expounding it, there can be no security for a consistent and stable,
more than for a faithful exercise of its powers.

If the meaning of the text be sought in the changeable meaning of the
words composing it, it is evident that the shape and attributes of the
Government must partake of the changes to which the words and phrases
of all living languages are constantly subject. What a metamorphosis
would be produced in the code of law if all its ancient phraseology
were to be taken in its modern sense And that the language of our
Constitution is already undergoing interpretations unknown to its
founders, will I believe appear to all unbiased Enquirers into the
history of its origin and adoption."

Madison, Letter to Henry Lee, 1824

There are other quotes from the Jefferson and Madison canons along these lines that directly counter the impression Lepore leaves of their views on p.113. Who watches the watchers?

But I get the impression there is little interest in discussing or defending Lepore's work on its own merits. Perhaps after it hits the bargain bin, which should be any moment now.

Naum said...


You use the term "fisking" and expect to be taken seriously?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Oh, and you've been on such good behavior. Call it what you want. Her work is suspect both on methodological and historical grounds. Basically, it's a partisan hatchet job.

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