Wood-Lepore Controversy, or Shooting Fish in Barrel

19 01 2011

In the last few days, a controversy has raged in the US historical blogosphere about a recent book on the place of the American Revolution in American social memory by Harvard historian Jill Lepore. Lepore examines how political movements of both the left and the right have appropriated the memory of the American Revolution in recent decades. In the early 1970s, antiwar protestors and other left-wing groups associated themselves with the Boston Tea Party and the other acts of civil disobedience on the eve of the Revolution. More recently, the Tea Party, a right-wing force, has tried to lay claim to being the true heirs of the revolution. Lepore decries such attempts to harness the past to present-day political ends as fundamentally ahistorical.

Commenting on Lepore’s book in the New York Review of Books, historian Gordon S. Wood was extremely critical. He wrote:

America’s Founding Fathers have a special significance for the American public. People want to know what Thomas Jefferson would think of affirmative action, or how George Washington would regard the invasion of Iraq. No other major nation honors its historical characters in quite the way we do. The British don’t have to check in periodically with, say, either of the two William Pitts to find out what a historical figure of two centuries ago might think of David Cameron’s government in the way we seem to have to check in with Jefferson or Washington about our current policies and predicaments. Americans seem to have a special need for these authentic historical figures in the here and now.

It is very easy for academic historians to mock this special need, and Harvard historian Jill Lepore, as a staff writer for The New Yorker, is an expert at mocking. Her new book, which mingles discussions of the present-day Tea Party movement with scattershot accounts of the Revolution, makes fun of the Tea Party people who are trying to use the history of the Revolution to promote their political cause.

Wood’s basic message is that instead of mocking the errors of historical interpretation made by Tea Party political activists, Lepore should have tried to figure out why Americans continue to connect present-day political controversies to the values of the “Founding Fathers”.

I’m inclined to agree with Wood on this point. For an academic historian like Lepore to point out all the errors made by Tea Party members, none of whom are historians by trade, is like shooting fish in a barrel, which is apparently an activity some people actually do (see picture).

Wood’s rebuke of Lepore has generated many blog posts by academic historians (see here, here, and here) reports in the commercial media (see here) and a Facebook page.

Moore on the Silence of the Academy

9 07 2010

Christopher Moore has a very interesting post on the Wellington/Macdonald controversy. Let me quote from it:

“What’s most striking about the tempest in a teapot over the possible renaming of Ottawa’s Wellington Street “Macdonald Avenue” — is how much the discussion relies on non-academic historians… it also reflects what we might call “the silence of the academy” these days. Among the army of Canadianists in our university history departments, there are many busy, dedicated and hardworking scholars, but vanishingly few, it seems, who are writing big books or otherwise disseminating ideas that resonate with broader ideas about Canadian history.  I try to cover the waterfront, looking for big, serious, important contributions about the history of this country… and some days the gleanings seem pretty thin, compared to the historical resources we have.”Tea

Moore is touching on a rather important point here. The phenomenon he is describing is not confined to Canada.

In a recent article in the New Yorker, Harvard historian Jill Lepore observed that the Tea Party’s appropriation of the memory of the American Revolution was a travesty of historical interpretation. She argues that Tea Party activists have been able to get away with calling themselves the true descendants of the American Revolutionaries in part because academic historians have given up writing accessible books aimed at the general public. The history professors who actually know about the American Revolution have decided to specialize in writing books with tiny readerships that largely consist of other academics. The result is that many average citizens now get their information about the American Revolution from journalists such as Glen Beck.

She writes: “The American historical profession defines itself by its dedication to the proposition that looking to the past to explain the present falls outside the realm of serious historical study. That stuff is for amateurs and cranks. [Professor Richard] Hofstadter disagreed. He recognized the perils of presentism—seeing the past as nothing more than a prologue to the present introduces evidentiary and analytical distortions and risks reducing humanistic inquiry to shabby self-justification—but he believed that scholars with something to say about the relationship between the past and the present had an obligation to say it, as carefully as possible, by writing with method, perspective, and authority. Hofstadter died in 1970. He was one of the last university professors of American history to reach readers outside the academy with sweeping interpretations of his own time.”

I think that Lepore and Moore are overstating the degree to which academic historians have withdrawn from the task of writing books that are both scholarly and accessible to a wider audience. Professor Gordon S. Wood continues to publish books on the Revolutionary and early national periods that are read by many no academics. Professor Alan Taylor, who also specializes in the same period of US history, also writes a regular column in the New Republic magazine. Professor David Cannadine is often heard on the BBC.