Thursday, September 4, 2008

Chants un-Democratic

Trust yr humble servant that he really does not want to pick on poor Princeton yet again. But he cannot resist piling on to the Enormous Heap of criticism that hath deservedly rained upon Robert Sean Wilentz, the bitter historian who, while not yet clinging to his guns and religion, has teetered perilously close to endorsing the McCain/Palin ticket. In a recent Newsweek article, Wilentz reinforces the Republican party's message that Obama is a vacuous orator. This is not the first anti-Obama volley that Wilentz has fired. Earlier this year, in the heat of the primary, Wilentz blasted the Illinois junior senator with the dubious accusation that he had played the "race card" against the junior senator from New York.

Wilentz's contumely has been the subject of so many electronic postings that AHB need not comment on all of them here. It will suffice, good reader, to say that just as the blogosphere has lit up with denunciations of Wilentz, so too has my mailbox been aglow with radioactive missives.

Wilentz is, without doubt, a historian of great subtlety and sophistication. His book, Chants Democratic, consummated the E.P. Thompsonian turn in American social and labor history and, unlike most dissertations-turned-books, has had a long shelf-life. It remains in print and is still widely read after more than two decades. Even if parts of its argument have been dismantled, the book justifiably remains a staple of graduate student reading lists. How many of you poor souls were interrogated about Thomas Skidmore and the Committee of Fifty during your oral exams?

Upon tenure at Princeton, Wilentz's writing career followed a serpentine path. With Paul Johnson, he co-authored a slight but charming book on a nineteenth century religious enthusiast. Along the way, he edited a few collections, dabbled in music criticism (quite successfully), and began turning out thousands, yea verily, hundreds of thousands of words in essays in places like The New Republic. It was even briefly rumored that Wilentz was on the shortlist to take the esteemed magazine's helm, though AHB III cannot help but wonder whether those rumours, like those that swirl every four years around minor political figures hoping for their brush with glory during vice presidential selection season, were more self-serving than serious.

Whilst he pursued a career as historian-cum-journalist, Wilentz held onto his second major book, The Rise of American Democracy, for a very, very long time. And as it sat around, it grew more and more rotund. He finally published it, to mostly favorable reviews and some notable prizes, in 2005. The rather weighty tome, AHB surmises, will seldom be read from cover to cover. But being one of the few who has consumed the book in its entirety, I can attest to the importance and power of the synthesis, even if I concur with many critics that he is much too enamored of Andrew Jackson and, among other sins, leaves historically-significant religious sects like the Mormons mostly out. Fortunately for the sake of our poor hung-over students who imbibe as much as the followers of Old Hickory themselves, Wilentz's publisher conveniently divided the book into three volumes for easy reading. More recently Wilentz has ventured into twentieth-century history, with a history of the Reagan era, but yr faithful one has yet to digest that presumably hastily-written book, so he will refrain from speculation as to its quality.

Wilentz has always had great ambitions. One informant, who knew R. Sean in his Balliol Oxford days, reported that the young, recently-minted Columbia BA boldly expressed his aspiration to become America's E.P. Thompson. Lately, it has appeared to many that Wilentz is grasping for the ring of the late to be the next Arthur Schlesinger, Jr, but he rather suspects that the Wilentz diaries will be less interesting than the recently-published AMS journals. But the Princeton chaired professor also compares his work to that of an august nineteenth-century predecessor, no Thompson or Schlesinger he. In an interview published by his university, Wilentz invites himself into the company of George Bancroft, the historian who ran the Massachusetts Democratic Party and served in the Polk administration.

I do think that historians must always be careful that their history writing doesn’t become infected by their politics. The minute you start with a political idea and try to find a version of history that affirms it, you’re a bad historian. A good propagandist, maybe, but a lousy historian. I think it is possible to be objective, no matter what one’s commitments may be. I really believe there is such a thing as historical truth, and that it is our job as historians to get at it, impossible though that task might be. As the great Dutch historian Pieter Geyl once wrote, history is argument without end. So long as we argue according to the rules of evidence, logic, and historical imagination, those arguments will get us somewhere.


Some blog-critics of Wilentz have suggested that he is engaged in a misuse of history and that he should be chastised for wrapping his recent polemics in the flowing robes of Clio. Others have lambasted him as an delusional egomaniac. Sparing no invective, Yale-based journalist/blogger Jim Sleeper called him "the increasingly and pathetically power-hungry Princeton professor." Sleeper contends that Wilentz "resembles the Japanese soldier found on a desert island in 1946 still fighting what he thinks is an unfinished World War."

AHB III finds himself on the middle ground. Yr interlocutor cavils at Wilentz's serial personification of history, as in his use of the phrase "history suggests." The mustachioed one senses that Wilentz's arguments about Obama are not particularly reality-based. There is a shrillness and anger to Wilentz's anti-Obama polemics that grates like nails on a chalkboard, though AHB believes that the Princeton don is more self-aware than one of the befuddled but still-loyal soldiers of the Japanese empire. It is clear that as a pundit Wilentz possesses a rather less subtle and sophisticated mind than he does as historian. (Perhaps the best foreshadowing of Wilentz's proclivity to use anthropomorphized history in a most hyperbolic fashion came during the Clinton impeachment hearings, when he warned those who wanted to oust the randy Arkansan that "history will track you down and condemn you for your cravenness." AHB confesses to being quite enamored with the image of Clio, dressed like Sarah Palin in hunting garb sitting in her blind, rifle on her shoulder, ready to bag some of Washington's trophy mooses. But such sentiments, however colorful, constitute neither good history nor good politics). In the balance, AHB must concur with historian-cum-blogger Eric Rauchway that however flimsy Wilentz's grasp of current politics may be, he ought to be free to opine on matters of the day.

AHB wonders, ultimately, whether l'affaire Wilentz is but a tempest in a teapot? I rather doubt that Wilentz's perfervid pontifications will matter in the upcoming election. But whether or not Obama wins or loses, AHB III feels a particular sadness watching a historian whose work he has long admired expend rather too much scholarly capital in service of a most dubious cause. AHB audaciously hopes that when the dust has settled that Wilentz returns to the place he knows best, viz America between 1789 and 1865.

5 comments:

Bill Harshaw said...

IMHO there's no chance any historian at anytime in the future will have as interesting memoirs as Schlesinger's. The world is just too specialized.

Evan said...

Some of those links are buggy.

Ambrose Hofstader Bierce III said...

Mr Harshaw, your comment is well-taken, though I have found the less well-publicized memoirs of Gerda Lerner, a field-defining specialist, to be quite interesting. Proximity to the presidency and Hollywood starlets is not, in my humble estimate, the only thing that makes a book interesting, though it did provide some of the spicier moments in AMS's. I would look most favourably upon the publication of the reminiscences of Eric Foner and Eugene Genovese (especially). And methinks that Lynn Hunt and Robin D.G. Kelley might have interesting stories of their own to tell. And to hawk-eyed Evan, thank you. I have repaired electronic history's rent fabric.
Yrs, AHB III

erazlogo said...

Missed one:

In "Wilentz's contumely has been the subject of so many electronic postings that AHB need not comment on all of them here."

"many" should link to: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/brainiac/2008/08/sean_wilentz_pr.html

Anonymous said...

As Sean so infamously ranted before a certain House hearing, historians have a way of tracking down foolishness. What amazes me sometimes, though, is his apparent sense that his own is of such importance