It’s an old-fashioned early American smackdown over at the Omohundro Institute blog: William and Mary Quarterly editor Joshua Piker engages Gordon Wood’s critique of the journal–and the wider field of early American history and culture. While waiting 11 months to respond to Wood’s comments is a rather leisurely pace for an online publication, Piker’s blog post suggests that waiting may have been a good thing. In his comments on Wood’s vision for early American history, I see echoes of a contemporary political argument.
Almost a year ago, . . Gordon Wood published a review of Bernard Bailyn’s Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History. In this piece, Wood heaps praise on Bailyn and criticism on the field of early American history, including theQuarterly. The review includes the following paragraph:
“For many [early Americanists], the United States is no longer the focus of interest. Under the influence of the burgeoning subject of Atlantic history, which Bailyn’s International Seminar on the Atlantic World greatly encouraged, the boundaries of the colonial period of America have become mushy and indistinct. The William and Mary Quarterly, the principal journal in early American history, now publishes articles on mestizos in 16th-century colonial Peru, patriarchal rule in post-revolutionary Montreal, the early life of Toussaint Louverture, and slaves in 16th-century Castile. The journal no longer concentrates exclusively on the origins of the United States. Without some kind of historical GPS, it is in danger of losing its way.”
Piker breaks down Wood’s cherry-picking like this:
What do these pieces have in common? Geography is part of the answer. The journal is “losing its way,” Wood says, and “[w]ithout some kind of historical GPS” we might wind up in Peru, Canada, Haiti, or Spain, rather than remaining within the geographic limits of the modern United States. But geography isn’t the only answer to that question. Language is another. All of these essays focus on non-English speakers. And when you look at what articles didn’t make Wood’s list from the Quarterly’s 2012 and 2013 offerings, it’s even clearer that his category of selection privileged language as much as geography.
What essays didn’t make the list? Well, let’s leave aside the fact that, in picking these four examples from among the essays published by the Quarterly in 2012 and 2013, Wood had to winnow out a number of articles—forums on mercantilism and the ratification of the Constitution, essays on Common Sense and the structure of the British Empire—that clearly fit within the bounds of his preferred historical project: exploring the origin of the United States. Given the nature of the argument he’s making, perhaps those pieces should’ve been acknowledged? But doing so would have undermined at least part of his polemic, and so it’s not surprising that they weren’t included.
But Wood also didn’t choose to criticize the decision to publish articles that focused on the British experience in the Caribbean or Africa, even though those places are clearly outside the boundaries of the United States. And he likewise didn’t list essays dealing with French speakers in Illinois and Louisiana, or Spanish speakers in Florida, or Cherokee speakers in Tennessee.
So, if we combine what Wood included and what he didn’t, we come up with a pretty simple two-part rule for what the Quarterly should publish: If you spoke English outside what is now the United States, you’re eligible for incorporation into early American history; and if you spoke anything at all within the bounds of the modern U.S., then you too can be part of that nation’s history.
I find it difficult to characterize that sort of approach to early American history. It’s parochial, but not entirely; it’s ethnocentric, but not exclusively. Mostly, it seems confused, arbitrary, and—given Wood’s preferred project of focusing on “the origins of the United States”—self-defeating.
As I read Piker’s response, it seems like he’s responding to the Donald Trump vision of the United States as much as to Wood’s review: “Wood uses the United States as an argument for limiting the horizons of early Americans and restricting their conversations in ways that do violence to their experiences and understandings. He turns the nation into a screen that allows us to see only certain places and a filter that permits us to hear only some voices. And then he asks how, given this subset of places and that limited number of voices, Wood’s own United States came to be.”
In other words, Piker argues that Wood offers us a political teleology, not an intellectual argument about the scope and scale of early American history. (Wood can’t possibly object to any inferences about the political nature of his argument. After all, he published his book review in The Weekly Standard, a neoconservative magazine!) Wood’s early America, like Trump’s modern United States, is a world in which English is the only language that counts. It’s a world in which people who speak other languages are simply un- (or anti-) American. It’s a vision of a nation–better yet, a tribe–whose borders are vigilantly policed. Wood sees an early America, like Trump sees the modern U.S. as contaminated by other languages and cultures, in need of purification or cleansing.
Well, nuts to that. Who demands that history be sanitized like that? Who is uncomfortable with the essential dirtiness and incompleteness of the historical record, its multilingual cacophony and complexity? Anyone who portrays it differently is lying to you. Who is afraid of the bloody, rich mulch of life from which we all descend? Not any historian worth reading or listening to.