The Scrapbook was delighted a few weeks ago when The Weekly Standard published Gordon S. Wood’s review of a new collection of essays by Bernard Bailyn (“History in Context: The American vision of Bernard Bailyn,” Books & Arts, February 23). To use a sports metaphor, this was a two-run homer: Bailyn, longtime professor of history at Harvard, is the dean of early American studies; and Wood, recently retired from Brown, is our leading authority on “the creation of the American republic”—the title of his classic 1969 study of the subject.
In The Scrapbook’s considered opinion, the essay was written with the customary insight and elegance that has earned Wood his Pulitzer and Bancroft prizes, the National Humanities Medal (from Barack Obama!)—even the enmity of Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting.
The review, for the most part, considers the disconnected essays Bailyn has assembled to define and describe his approach to the challenge of history. But because his narrative technique—in Bailyn’s words, “redirecting [history] from established channels into new directions, unexplored directions, so that what was once vague or altogether unperceived is suddenly flooded with light, and the possibilities of a new way of understanding are suddenly revealed”—is currently out of fashion in the academy, Wood takes the occasion to describe Bailyn’s mastery (“[H]e has transformed every aspect of the subjects he touched—from the social basis of colonial politics to early American educational history to the origins of the American Revolution to early American immigration”) and deplore current trends in the profession.
“It’s as if academics have given up trying to recover an honest picture of the past,” Wood writes, “and have decided that their history-writing should become simply an instrument of moral hand-wringing. . . . College students and many historians have become obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society. And this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history.”
All of this, of course, should be obvious to any student of the subject, and the consequences of politicizing history are evident for all to see: a growing ignorance about American origins, hostility to learning about them, and the reflexive habit of judging the behavior of people in the distant past by contemporary standards. This has had the effect not only of distorting our understanding of American history, but of alienating students from an appreciation of their country’s rich heritage.
And as if on cue, the Internet seems to have exploded in response. For the next week or two, Twitter accounts and academic blogs were consumed in scholarly rage at Wood’s apostasy, and in terms—“Gordon Wood’s train-wreck of a Weekly Standard article”—that suggest his essay was singularly effective. To be sure, there were strong political components to the outbursts, and most comments seem to have emanated either from junior faculty members feeling their oats or peripheral campus types (“TheTattooedProf”) well below Wood’s league.
Still, The Scrapbook takes some quiet satisfaction in the spectacle—in the rancorous debates about American history and the lessons of our national past, The Weekly Standard furnished a wise, authoritative voice that needs to be heard. Better yet, if we measure the violence of any response to its cause, Gordon Wood’s reflections on Bernard Bailyn’s achievements may be read for some time to come.