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Possibly the right response to Gordon Wood’s “History in Context” in The Weekly Standard – a “get off my lawn essay,” as one historian says – is parody. After all Wood does begin the essay by saying his mentor Bernard Bailyn is woefully under-appreciated, and then proceeds to mention that Bailyn has two Pulitzers.1 What else can one do but mock?

Well, one can take Wood earnestly, as is one’s wont, and ask, what happened to the younger Gordon Wood? How would he fare before the stern tribunal of Weekly Standard Wood?

I ask because Wood the elder expresses dissatisfaction with those historians “obsessed with inequality,” who

see themselves as moral critics obligated to denounce the values of the past in order to somehow reform our present. They criticize Bailyn’s work for being too exquisitely attuned “to the temper of an earlier time” and, thus, for failing “to address the dilemmas of its own day.”…

These historians need to read and absorb Bailyn’s essay on “Context in History,” published in this collection for the first time. Perhaps then they would be less eager to judge the past by the values of the present and less keen to use history to solve our present problems. In some sense, of course, they are not really interested in the past as the past at all.

But, as another Bailyn student pointed out to me, Wood was not always so scornful of judging and using the past for present purposes, nor so principled about letting the past be past. Consider this important passage from Wood’s remarkable first book, Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787:

Considering the Federalist desire for a high-toned government filled with better sorts of people, there is something decidedly disingenuous about the democratic radicalism of their arguments.… In effect they appropriated and exploited the language that more rightfully belonged to their opponents. The result was the beginning of a hiatus in American politics between ideology and motives that never again closed. By using the most popular and democratic rhetoric available to explain and justify their aristocratic system, the Federalists helped to foreclose the development of an American intellectual tradition in which differing ideas of politics would be intimately and genuinely related to differing social interests.… and thereby contributed to the creation of that encompassing liberal tradition which has mitigated and often obscured the real social antagonisms of American politics.… the Federalists fixed the terms for the future discussion of American politics.

Listen to what Wood the younger is saying, here: “disingenuous” surely sounds morally critical, as does “appropriated and exploited.”

Talking about what might “never again” be, and even about “the future” certainly doesn’t sound like thinking about “the past as the past.”

And bringing up “differing social interests” and “real social antagonisms” sounds like it might entail concern about, if not obsession with, inequality.

Perhaps Wood the younger would have to get off Wood the elder’s lawn.

I am actually more interested in what Wood the younger would say to his older self, concerned as he was with arguments that foreclosed discussion of genuine social antagonism. I have never really found persuasive Wood the younger’s argument that 1787 marked some kind of end-of-Eden, after which honest political discourse was never again possible in the United States. Rather, I think the Federalists’ disingenuous behavior has constantly to be emulated and that initial foreclosure reenacted to keep differing social interests unexpressed.


1A feat rarely matched, and then only by the likes of another giant among colonial historians, Alan Taylor.

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In the current New Yorker one can see, within four pages, three celebrated gender-benders get taken apart by two critics.

First John Lahr says Cynthia Nixon is, well, not really smart enough to star in Wit:

The good luck of the original production and of the 2001 film version was that they featured tart, alert, commanding actresses – Kathleen Chalfant and Emma Thompson – who could embody the psychological profile of the droll, arrogant, solitary, bluestocking professor. The bad luck of this revival … is that it does not. Cynthia Nixon, who is known to one and all as Miranda Hobbes in “Sex and the City,” plays Vivian without Chalfant’s and Thompson’s rebarbative wallop.

Let’s pause here to say (a) who wants to follow Emma Thompson in a role? and (b) what Lahr doesn’t say is that relative to the other three lead characters in “Sex and the City,” Miranda was the intellectual, which may be the source of the confusion here.

… she can’t see the wink in the words … Although Nixon, who has fought her own battle with cancer, is entirely believable as a patient, as an academic she never really convinces the audience that she knows what she’s talking about. Suzanne Bertish, as … Vivian’s … mentor … exudes a very specific intellectual gravity, which only compounds the sense of Nixon’s being outside her tole. Nixon is best when pain pushes Vivian beyond the words … and she whimpers for solace.

A left-handed compliment if ever there were one. Better when she whimpers! Moving on.

Anthony Lane on Madonna as director of W.E. – and really, there was never going to be a good outcome here, but:

Recent reports from Liverpool claimed that irate moviegoers had come out of “The Artist” complaining that there were no words in it, and asking for their money back. In the same spirit, I hereby demand a refund for “W.E.,” because of its outrageous lack of sex. What on earth is the point of a Madonna product, in any medium, if it contains not a single orgy? … It didn’t have to be this way. What Madonna should have done … is to buy the movie rights to “Full Service” (Grove Press), a new memoir by Scotty Bowers. He made his reputation by sleeping with everyone in Hollywood who wasn’t actually Lassie, and how he tells all. If you If you ever suspected that Spencer Tracy was bisexual and Tyrone Power a coprophiliac, and if you happen to believe everything you read, here is all the testimony you require. Bowers takes particular pride in the services that he performed for, and with, the Duke and Duchess on a visit to America: “Essentially, he was gay and she was a dyke.” Ah, happy days … Bowers’s reveries have fanned the flames, and it is a shame that Madonna should come along and douse them.

I’ve hidden one of Lane’s best lines in the last ellipse, just for fun.

Then Lane wheels about to dismiss Glenn Close, for Albert Nobbs.

… the problem with such indecision, as voiced by Close, is it makes Albert sound like a simpleton, regardless of the agonies that may be imposed upon society by the need for sexual choice. That is why “Albert Nobbs” awakes so bracingly whenever Janet McTeer marches into view. She plays Hubert Page … [b]y a merry coincidence, Hubert, too, turns out to be a woman underneath … she is no perhapser, but a thoroughgoing yes-woman, like Molly Bloom … Imagine a different film on a similar theme, with Hubert moved to center stage and Garcia replaced by Pedro Almodóvar, for whom cross-dressers in a Catholic country would be meat and drink. Poor Albert could then retreat into the shadows, where he so evidently belongs …

Gendered readings of these critiques, if any, are left as an exercise for the comments.

David Greenberg’s review of Chris Matthew’s new Kennedy biography is, like everything Greenberg writes, worth reading. It’s a wonderful takedown, I think, because it’s not entirely captivated by the search for the perfect snark (they’re wily, snarks are, and should be hunted at dawn and dusk, when they typically rest).

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Helen Vendler’s review of the Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, edited by Rita Dove, is quite a piece of work. (It’s been widely noted in the blogosphere, e.g. here, by I think the same Anderson seen commenting on likeminded blogs.)

Dove’s response is well worth reading. But not having been gored directly, the rest of us may wonder if Vendler hasn’t just missed the point. Do we expect of an anthology that it will supply a complete and final list of the “poems to remember?” That’s from the headline, but it does reflect Vendler’s thinking —

No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading, so why are we being asked to sample so many poets of little or no lasting value?

How flatly she equates “lasting value” with being “worth reading”! For me, these are pretty different categories —  especially for recent work, part of whose interest is precisely that its value is still to be settled. And the expectation that an anthology should be a Golden Treasury seems particularly inapt for American culture, which despite its manifold fallings-short is organized still around a recurrent dream of mobility and self-invention.

(PS. If there were any doubt of Vendler’s specific animus in this piece, consider that the sentence I’ve quoted is offered to support the proposition that “Multicultural inclusiveness prevails.”)

After reading this, Yglesias’s reviewlet of Funny People, as well as David Denby’s* recent rave, I wish that I could go see the film. Alas, I don’t go to the movies; I have kids. Anyway, it’s this line of Yglesias’s that caught my attention:

It also follows Knocked Up by offering a bracingly conservative vision of family life and obligation. It’s not a point of view I agree with, but it’s well articulated and done so in a way that’s divorced from the hypocrisy and petty moralizing of mainstream social conservatism.

What interests me here, beyond my own pathetic circumstances, is the question of how much more cultural traction conservatism would have if there were more legitimately talented conservative artists. I’m not saying there are none, mind you, but there really seem to be very few that can compete in an unfettered market of ideas, images, and songs with progressives/liberals/weirdos-like-Bjork.

But if there were, what would happen? Would the culture shift noticeably? I’m guessing it would. The easy test, perhaps, is to consider other nations where there are gifted conservative musicians, filmmakers, and authors, whose work captures the public’s fancy. Do such places exist?** And if so, what’s it like there?

* Who I still do not like. And whose opinions I still do not trust. And yet…

** Remember, I’m an Americanist. Which is to say, provincial. And poorly dressed.

Slate has a funny piece up about negative reviews of great composers. Viz:

This din of brasses, tin pans and kettles, this Chinese or Caribbean clatter with wood sticks and ear-cutting scalping knives … [t]his reveling in the destruction of all tonal essence, raging satanic fury in the orchestra, this demoniacal lewd caterwauling, scandal-mongering, gun-toting music … the darling of feeble-minded royalty, …of the court flunkeys covered with reptilian slime, and of the blasé hysterical female court parasites … inflated, in an insanely destructive self-aggrandizement, by Mephistopheles’ mephitic and most venomous hellish miasma, into Beelzebub’s Court Composer and General Director of Hell’s Music—Wagner!

I wish I could get away with that sort of thing in the review I’m currently writing.

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