Gordon Wood and the writing of history

There has been some controversy over the work of historian Gordon Wood recently, one of the more famous of Bernard Bailyn’s students. Wood’s Radicalism of the American Revolution (Vintage, 1993) won a Pulitzer and his Creation of the American Republic (University of North Carolina Press, 1969) has had a lasting influence in shaping present-day understandings of the American founding. A recent post over at The Junto blog, and a follow-up post by John Fea (Arguing about Gordon Wood), will get you up to speed, more or less, with how some historians evaluate Wood’s achievements.

Instead of the controversy itself, I want to consider the political and ethical dimensions of what Michel de Certeau called the “historiographical operation.” In La mémoire, l’histoire, l’oubli (2003) Paul Ricoeur describes the writing of history as consisting of three phases: the documentary phase, the explanation / understanding phase, and the reception phase. In other words, the historiographical operation is a set of practices by which (1) an historian consults various kinds of traces of the past, very often texts deposited in archives; which she then (2) puts various questions to in the attempt to understand and explain some aspect of that past; and is (3) subsequently expressed in a critical narrative eventually read by both a professional and public community.

Historians today generally write histories as narratives which contain arguments and explanations about the past. History writing is like other forms of writing in being figurativethe writing of history draws upon the features of written discourse more generally, such as literary tropes and techniques, to convey its meaning. As Ricoeur has very persuasively argued, historical narratives “stand for” the past. The function of historiography, however analytical, is to figure our understanding of the past through a selection of and critical inquiry into the traces of the past, which themselves, in some fashion, “stand for” it. The very selection of such traces, be they texts, artifacts, paintings, or what have you, and the questions posed to them, immediately brings otherwise mute objects into the world of discourse. To ask a question of a trace is to have first selected that trace, a selection which is itself already a part of the historian’s orientation. Historians are, like everyone else, individual members of particular societies with specific social roles, expectations, and conventions. Historians are also members of various communities which, to an important degree, govern the traces they select for study, the questions they pose to traces of the past, and the figurative-discursive modes in which they tell their stories. Perhaps the main question, then, is what constitutes a better or worse explanation or understanding of the past?

Part of the critical buzz surrounding Wood’s work has been about the way he performs the historiographical operation. That is, the issue turns around how his writing has privileged certain kinds of traces, often select sets of actors in the past, giving the impression that these particular traces and actors adequately “stand for” the past in toto. Criticism of Wood’s work can be based on a rejection of his selection of traces, the questions he poses to such traces, and his mode of presentation. In other words, it is not simply the arguments Wood makes, but the very presuppositions of his narrative that are being questioned. Since Wood’s first book was published in 1969 historians have been looking in ever-greater detail at the social, cultural, imperial, and gender history of colonial America, sometimes with an eye to restoring the sense in which the American Revolution was an event whose occurrence cannot be understood, let alone represented, without the addition of these newer kinds of traces, actors, and figurative plots. Maya Jasanoff’s Liberty’s Exiles (Vintage, 2011) is precisely this kind of newer storyit looks not at the American patriots, but at the American loyalists. She studies the “losers” of history, which includes women, racial minorities, and indigenous peoples. Jasanoff’s narrative also emphasizes contingency, which she then uses to show how a significant minority of American colonists chose to remain loyal to Britain and in so doing transformed both Britain and its empire.

Contrasting the kind of history written by Wood with that of Jasanoff in terms of how they each perform the historiographical operation leads me to a basic question: when a historian takes a certain perspective on the past, and writes a narrative in terms of that perspective, are we to understand that the given historian fully endorses the narrative of which she is the narrator? There are historians who study the apologists for slavery, for instance, who are clearly not in the least bit interested in condoning their subject of study, at least on the question of slavery. Yet it remains true that a greater number of narratives about the past, told about different subjects, from various kinds and perhaps hitherto neglected traces of the past, and related in different narrative modes, has greatly enriched our understanding of the past and our explanations of how the past continues to exercise itself in the present. It is now impossible to sustain an argument for a vision of history in which the victors alone and their great deeds deserve to be remembered.

If a particular historian does not, in writing a narrative supposed to be in some way representative of the past, wish to give the impression that such a representation is the only such possible representation, how should we respond to its narrative-representational claim, as both historians and citizens? Again, criticism of Wood’s work can come from several directions. This includes an examination of the traces he selected, the actors he decides to include, and the plot of his story. But I think it should almost go without saying that historiographical fetishes should be closely re-examined anyways. Given that a rather narrow range of stories continues to be privileged there may be serious cause for concern about insisting on someone like Wood’s workthough I am not here saying here that this is necessarily the case. What I mean is simply this: are we not, as historians and citizens, members of communities in which we bestow meaning on a text through the practices by which we read them? Is it not important to recall that if and when we read the work of an historian such as Wood, we do not have to consider his argument the last word on the subject, or as a monologue to which we cannot respond? The reception of any historical work need not be univocal. It seems to me that there are ways of profitably reading what is now a conventional historical work such that its intentions may be ignored for very good critical, political, and ethical reasons.

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