I subscribe to an ancient technology called a “listserv” on early American history. (You can read it in HTML digest form here.) It’s mostly totes boring, and only rarely does it address stuff I’m interested in, but wev: that’s why I have a blog, friends! In any case, Jesse Lemisch wrote in yesterday to announce Gordon Wood Jumps the Shark!, and linked to a book review in the New York Review of Books in which Wood gets all cranky. (Someone, alert the media!) Now, I can attest to the fact that Wood is a perfect gentleman one-on-one, but in the 1990s, more than once I saw him angrily denounce and insult in person and in print, as Dorothy Parker would say, the gamut “from A to B”, of late eighteenth century political historians. So, getting exercised about Gordon Wood being a big ‘ol meanie is . . . getting exercised about Wood being Wood.
Lamentably, the book review Lemisch links to is for subscribers only, and I’m not going to pay 6 bucks to read it. (Feel free to do the homework yourself!) But, the book in question that allegedly has Wood so angry is The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon by John Ferling. John Ferling writes very glossy, somewhat gossipy, but on the whole completely inoffensive narrative histories about the so-called Founding Fathers. (I once made the mistake of assigning a book of his in my American Revolution class. We had absolutely nothing to talk about that week.) I find this whole fracas a little strange: a book whose subtitle is “The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon” is insufficiently worshipful of Washington? Using both Genius and Icon in the title isn’t filiopietistic enough? Lemisch’s comment on Wood’s review is “Calling Parson Weems! Back to the ‘fifties: sounds like another instance of what David Waldstreicher calls ‘Founders Chic.’”
Yeah, that David Waldlestricher, who wrote a book on Benjamin Franklin! And Lemisch has edited an edition of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography! Lemisch has more famously written about working-class men (seamen in particular), and although he eschews the label “Marxist,”I think it’s fair to say that he privileges class conflict as an animating force in eighteenth-century America a great deal more than most early Americanists, and infinitely more than the consensus historians like Wood. Here’s a suggestion, boys: just stop writing about the so-called “Founding Fathers!” Stop it! Stop! Go find something new, interesting, and utterly undiscovered in the archives, for a change!
Like I said: “the gamut from A to B” in early American history. It’s all the so-called Founding Fathers, all of the time. ((Yawn.)) Now, I’d better get back to my sure-to-be prizewinning book about a little girl who spoke only Wabanaki and French and became a nun. . . yeah, that’s the ticket to a National Book Award, for sure!