say it ain't so

A few classes ago, my favorite history prof made this quip in the middle of class: "There are two types of history books: biography and covert autobiography." I want not to believe this. But I think it is closer to the truth than a lot of us want to admit. Take, for instance, two of the most highly acclaimed recent books about the American Revolution: Gordon Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution and Gary Nash's The Unknown American Revolution. Both huge books. Both with lots of recommendations from the community of colonial American historians. Both have pretty artwork on the cover featuring revolutionary soldiers fighting. Both authors have lots of letters after their names and teach at prestigious programs. And Gary Nash is actually a nice guy to boot. So what's the problem? Well, aside from the meta-problem of why do we have so many books about the same friggin topic, the problem is that they say very different, perhaps mutually contradictory things. Wood says it's the ideas of republican representative rule that get the revolution rolling. But then, after 1783 and the end of the War, those ideas spiral out of control and the new US of A ends up being a chaotic democracy of the lowest-common-denominator (namely, the stupid American voting public). So for Wood, it's ideas that run the show, even if those ideas get used improperly from time to time. History is a story of unintended consequences. Nash's history is one of lost opportunities. His revolution is an amalgamation of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of separate smaller revolutions going on from poor upper New England to poor tenant farmers in New York to poor urbanites in Philadelphia to poor freed slaves in Virginia and poor indentured servants in the Carolinas. In other words, the American Revolution was the French Revolution that never lived up to its potential for radical change. The new US of A would have been a truly free, egalitarian collection of sovereign states but for the interference of the federalists--the rich, landed gentry found mostly in Virginia (e.g., Washington, Jefferson) or around Massachusetts (e.g., Franklin, Adams). Getting beyond the books themselves, and getting past the boring question "which one is right?"--boring since we can't answer it--we find that, surprise, surprise, these books find in the Revolution causes, explanations, or mechanisms that are near and dear to the authors themselves. Wood, for instance, has been quoted as saying that no one's actions really make any difference. To which we, knowing him, might say for him: because it's all about ideas: which cause events to fall like dominoes, sometimes patterned, sometimes out of control. Nash, who has written some of the best scholarship on the role of African-Americans in the Revolutionary period, is a not-so-closet Marxist. The whole show is a dialectic between the powerful and the weak, the land owners and the renters, the lords and the governed. That the American project is a "consent of the governed" government simply means that colonists didn't have a true vision of just how far they could go with the grand experiment. They settled for peace with England and amongst themselves rather than crafting a truly egalitarian society. All this is to say that the more I read, the more I think that--yeah, it's either biographical or autobiographical.


Blogger John McCollum said...

The word 'hagiography' comes to mind.

As does 'sandwich,' but that's just because it's lunchtime...

4/17/2006 12:30 PM  
Blogger Andy Whitman said...

I wonder what the balance is here. I don't doubt that every author brings his or her biases and baggage to the proceeedings. And I think we always need to read with that in mind.

But I think the whole postmodern approach to literature -- that we cannot really say anything meaningful because objective truth is always hopelessly compromised by the biases and the baggage -- is the counsel of despair and futility.

Somewhere in the writings of the two authors you discuss there is objective truth. Real people with real names fought and died over -- what? Ideas? The dialectic between the lords and the governed? Some combination of the two? Or something else, something like "this is where we live, and we have the right to self-government, and you're not here and you're not going to tell us what to do"? Or all of the above?

My guess is that it's the latter, that it's all of the above, and that both authors have a grasp of some of the truth, and have missed the big picture entirely. This is why history can never be neatly encapsulated and summarized. But neither is it futile or meaningless to search for the answers. Real, complicated people are the protagonists of history. So why is it surprising that history itself should be complex and multi-faceted, unable to be pinned down with a neat slogan or an aphorism?

I also wish the Bush administration would figure that out, but that's a posting for another day.

4/17/2006 2:23 PM  
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4/18/2006 9:40 AM  
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4/18/2006 10:31 AM  
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4/21/2006 12:59 PM  
Blogger jboyd said...

The fact that "something" "happened" in the revolution is obvious. My guess is that the revolution then was equally coherent as it is today---which is just to say that perspective rules the day. One man's modens podens is another mans modens tollens? It seems to me that both in textual interpretation, and the interpretation of events, we must search for the middle ground between naive realism, and reader response criticism. I don't think it's odd to find bits and pieces of an author's psyche imbeded in his or hers historical tome. I think we all get captured by different bits of the same story. Good history is to find the story. Better history is to know that every story has a raconteur.

4/22/2006 11:10 PM  

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