The Age of Wilentz…Posted: August 27, 2008
It seems that in the newest Newsweek (or at least the online edition) Sean Wilentz went off on Obama… again. This time even more shrilly than previously.
There’s a lot here for me to parse over (especially because today I found my lost copy of the Rise of American Democracy) because I really admire Wilentz, the historian. Few years ago, when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and was leaning towards going to grad school in history, I went out on a (depressed) whim and bought Wilentz’s epic the Rise of American Democracy (often when I get depressed I buy long history books).
And it blew me away.
Wilentz is – as Historian puts it – a “a romantic populist through and through”. And I think he’s best nationalist romantic writing early American history today. What struck me most about Wilentz’ book is his ability to work in and address non-traditional perspectives into a very traditional narrative. And he can write engaging about nominally boring stuff (ie. legislative debates) and is very good at getting a historical actor’s character across in just a short paragraph. There are problems with the book, namely that in his romanticism Wilentz gives more credit to some people than they deserve (Jackson, Jackson, Jackson), but I argue it stands up as great work of history. (For a useful corrective to the problems in Wilentz’s book see Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought)
Anyway, Wilentz’s book set my historical imagination on fire and really helped push me in the direction I’m on today.
What I used to admire too about the man is how engaged Wilentz was in “public writing” (how could he not be when his hero is Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.?) This is something I admire in those historians who do it and it’s something that I want to do too (when I’m all growns up).
That civic engagement, that public writing, is what brings us here. I think it is obvious that Wilentz is a big fan of the Clintons, one might say in a Schlesigerian sort of way. And throughout the primary Wilentz has manned the ideological trenches for Senator Clinton in the New Republic, Newsweek, and elsewhere.
And as Senator Clinton’s chances declined so did the ideological coherency of Wilentz’s arguments. My problem is not with his thesis, that Clinton rulz and Obama sux, but the increasingly shaky ideological and empirical limb he’s had to get on to defend it.
And I think it’s started to affect Wilentz’s more scholarly work.
I read his last book, The Age of Reagan, because – well – it is a new book by one of my favorite historians. Much of the book is very good, especially its thesis (that Reagan changed America importantly and liberals are going to have to deal with it) and the chapters on Reagan presidency. But there are some serious problems with it. Namely that the chapters on the Carter and Clinton years seem less scholarly rigorous (to this fledgling historian) and more as set up for his critique of Obama. And his discussion of the 2008 primary in his epilogue was simply odd; he described Obama’s coalition as simply being just blacks and “parry leftists and left liberals (notably in college and university towns, where the student vote was large) . There are other examples. Those last few pages are very sloppy and poorly informed.
I think Wilentz, a historian I admired, has allowed an upsetting/disappointing primary get in the way of his historical and ideological judgment. Besides, the limbs Wilentz is willing to stick himself out seems completely unnecessary at this point. Being that his candidate has gone out of her way to make amends with Obama.
What I’d hate would be for a great historian to waste his reputation so unnecessarily and so pathetically.
 Sean Wilentz, The Age of Reagan (New York, 2009), p. 452