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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.

Eric Alterman has this to say about George Kennan and John Gaddis:

Had Kennan not lived so long, Gaddis might have done a fair job as his biographer. But as Kennan, despite remaining an old-fashioned conservative in the tradition of Walter Lippmann and Hans Morgenthau, moved further and further to the dovish/diplomatic wing of foreign policy debate, his biographer rushed headlong in the opposite direction. Kennan, for instance, strongly opposed Bush’s Iraq adventure, while Gaddis sounded like Dick Cheney on steroids during this period. Cautioning Democrats not to take issue with intellectual currents underlying Bush’s foreign policy, Gaddis argued: “The world now must be made safe for democracy, and this is no longer just an idealistic issue; it’s an issue of our own safety,” later adding, “A global commitment to remove remaining tyrants could complete a process Americans began 232 years ago.”

The result, sadly, is a biography, George F. Kennan: An American Life, in which the author not only sides emotionally and intellectually with his subject’s adversaries but, in many instances, does not even try to do justice to his subject’s arguments.

It must be significant that Kennan agreed to Gaddis as his biographer before Gaddis wrote The Long Peace – before that, I suppose it was not clear how different were their respective directions.

Roger Ebert writes about nourishment without eating and making out without having sex. (Briefly: the former he endures; the latter he adores.)

In the hands of a writer sick with ambition, these subjects might have become the occasion for a meditation on the virtues of discipline; for a writer poisoned by sentiment, they might have become treacly elegy. But Ebert seems these days just to be writing because he really wants to tell you how it is, and it’s very good writing indeed.1


1Which is not to say that I’ve never felt misled by his movie criticism. Not to go too deeply into things, but I would leap to play the dour Siskel to his thumbs up for Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull and Synecdoche, New York.

Does this (here and here) happen often? Does the Times often review the same book twice? I can’t think of another instance like this, I have to admit, but I don’t pay much attention to the Sunday Book Review anymore, so I can’t say for certain.

Regardless, in this case, if you don’t feel like clicking on links, the book in question is Sir John Keegan’s The American Civil War: A Military History. Which book, I should say, I haven’t read and won’t be reading. And not just because the second review linked above, authored by the normally genial James McPherson, savages Keegan’s efforts as terribly sloppy, but also because, coincidentally, just last week Eric and I taught Richard Evans’s Lying About Hitler in our graduate seminar.

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Chuck Klosterman’s review of the newly released Beatles boxed set is a thing of beauty. Imagine trying to review the Beatles’ collected works. Nearly everyone knows the material. Nearly everything that can be said has already been said. There are no superlatives left. So Klosterman employs an ingenious gimmick.

From the first paragraph:

Like most people, I was initially confused by EMI’s decision to release remastered versions of all 13 albums by the Liverpool pop group Beatles, a 1960s band so obscure that their music is not even available on iTunes. The entire proposition seems like a boondoggle. I mean, who is interested in old music? And who would want to listen to anything so inconveniently delivered on massive four-inch metal discs with sharp, dangerous edges? The answer: no one.

And it goes on from there. Klosterman, with this deft move, allows himself to make the key point — that the Beatles are the most important pop band ever — by pretending to discover the joys of listening to their body of work for the first time. I kept waiting to get bored and annoyed. But I didn’t. The stunt never became trite.

For example:

It is not easy to categorize the Beatles’ music; more than any other group, their sound can be described as “Beatlesque.” It’s akin to a combination of Badfinger, Oasis, Corner Shop, and everyother rock band that’s ever existed.

It helps that he uses humor to make larger points:

The clandestine power derived from the autonomy of the group’s composition—each Beatle has his own distinct persona, even though their given names are almost impossible to remember. There was John Lennon (the mean one), Paul McCartney (the hummus eater), George Harrison (the best dancer), and drummer Ringo Starr (The Cat). Even the most casual consumers will be overwhelmed by the level of invention and the degree of change displayed over their scant eight-year recording career, a span complicated by McCartney’s tragic 1966 death and the 1968 addition of Lennon’s wife Yoko Ono, a woman so beloved by the band that they requested her physical presence in the studio during the making of Let It Be.

And again:

After Mr. McCartney was buried near Beaconsfield Road in Liverpool, Beatles bass-playing duties were secretly assigned to William Campbell, a McCartney sound-alike and an NBA-caliber smokehound. This lineup change resulted in the companion albums Rubber Soul and Revolver, both of which are okay. Despite its commercial failure, Rubber Soul allegedly caused half-deaf Brian Wilson to make Pet Sounds. (I assume this is also why EMI released a mono version of the catalogue—it allows consumers to experience this album the same way Wilson did.) If you like harmonies or guitar overdubs or the sun or Norwegian lesbians or taking drugs during funerals, you will probably sleep with these records on the first date. Rubber Soul gets an A- because I don’t speak French. Revolver gets an A+, mostly because of “She Said She Said” and “For No One,” but partially because I hate filing my taxes.

Not to mention, he’s unafraid to wield a knife when he finds himself in close quarters. Of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, he writes:

It mostly seems like a slightly superior incarnation of The Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request, a record that (ironically) came out seven months after this one. Pop archivists might be intrigued by this strange parallel between the Beatles and the Stones catalogue—it often seems as if every interesting thing The Rolling Stones ever did was directly preceded by something the Beatles had already accomplished, and it almost feels like the Stones completely stopped evolving once the Beatles broke up in 1970. But this, of course, is simply a coincidence. I mean, what kind of bozo would compare the Beatles to The Rolling Stones?

And you have to love a guy who finishes by telling everyone to get off his lawn:

I’ve noticed that this EMI box also includes the gratuitously titled singles collection Past Masters, but I’m not even going to play it. How could a song called “Rain” not be boring? I feel like I’ve already heard enough. These are nice little albums, but I can’t imagine anyone actually shelling out $260 to buy these discs. There’s just too much great free music on the Internet, you know? You might find the instructional, third-person perspective of “Sie Leibt Dich” charming and snappy (particularly if you’re trying to learn German the hard way), but first check out “myspace.org,” a popular website with a forward-thinking musical flavor. That, my rockers, is the future. That, and videogames.

I think this is one of the smartest reviews I’ve ever read. I’m trying to think of others that I’ve particularly liked. Well, Alan Taylor on Sean Wilentz was pretty good. Share your favorite reviews in the comments, if you don’t mind.

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