Gordon fucking Wood…

Over at the Edge of the American West, Ari has a list of five books that “explain” American history (pre-1876). The list is as good as any – arbitrary but insightful. I’m familiar with all but one of the books on his list and I find his inclusion of Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution to be both interesting and strangely funny. It seems that no matter how hard one might try, there is simply no way to escape that book.

As you may or may not know, I’m in grad school studying history and – honestly – you can’t escape Wood and Radicalism. Most people, even those who love the book, admit that it’s – at best – incomplete. At worst the book could be said to ignore huge swaths of people – women, African-Americans (especially) Native-Americans – of Early America and one can’t help but almost forget that slavery existed after the Revolution. So, even though the book is admittedly deeply flawed – in one way or the other – why do people keep coming back to it? Even people who deeply disagree with it’s premise and/or conclusions?

Is it because Wood’s prose is very readable – at least in Radicalism – and thus easy to assign in both undergrad and graduate level? Probably. Is it deep down that because most Americans – even those most critical of America –  want to find something radical about our revolution? Maybe. Is it because Wood’s simple and straightforward thesis – America goes from monarchy to republicanism to democracy in one easy breezy sweep of history – is so easy to “write against” and critique? Quite likely.

I find Wood to be such annoying figure in modern early American historiography – he’s insightful but frustratingly close minded. He managed to write a book – ok, a collection of edited essays – about the Founders that was not hagiography nor boring but instead provocative. Unlike Joesph Ellis, for example. But he also spent a good portion of that book – and his latest – endlessly bashing and degrading cultural history.

His central arguments in about early American history seems to be:

  1. The last fifty years of early American historiography has been pretty damn good…
  2. But there is too much of it!
  3. And there is too much gender/race/class in modern historiography!

There is an elitist element that someone – especially someone who is not going to graduate school at Harvard, Yale, or Wood’s Brown – can’t help but detect in Wood’s sweeping denoucement of the multipicity of voices in the American historical profession. It – almost – seems that if you aren’t a graduate of one of the big name institutions – the Ivies, UVA, William and Mary, Stanford, etc. – you’re using up intellectual air that could be better spent; like by Wood’s graduate students. And his attitude towards gender, race, and class in history (especially gender) is that – man, that shit should have stopped with A Midwife’s Tale and an Unredeemed Capitive. Which is just closeminded and – again – elitist.

So, I think that Wood is at once one of the most interesting and the most frustrating early Americanists today. More often than not, my frustrations with him out weight how interesting I find him. Yet I still keep coming back to his work. Why?

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2 Comments on “Gordon fucking Wood…”

  1. Doctor Brown says:

    I remember Gordon Wood. Didn’t we have to read that book? I was too drunk/sad in that class to pay much attention, all I really did well was my impression of Hamilton.

  2. We talked about Wood, but I don’t think Parkinson made us read it. If my memory holds up.


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