Guest Post: William Black, Gordon Wood’s Notecards and the Two Presentisms

Today we are pleased to have a guest post from William R. Black (@w_r_black), a PhD student of history at Rice University. His research examines how Cumberland Presbyterians dealt with slavery, sectionalism, theological controversy, and professionalization in the nineteenth century.

blogsize-obama-gordon-woodGordon Wood riled up the #twitterstorians with a review of his advisor Bernard Bailyn’s latest book, Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History. Much of the review is not so much about Bailyn as it is about later generations of historians, who (according to Wood) have abandoned narrative history for “fragmentary,” obscure monographs on subaltern peoples. Wood attacks these historians for being “anachronistic—condemning the past for not being more like the present.” He continues:

These historians 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.” His desire to re-create the “different world” of the past “as it actually was” is said to be “politically charged,” because, mirabile dictu, it “gives priority to the beliefs of historical actors” over our present beliefs, “thus inhibiting a critical dialogue between past and present values.”

In one of many scholarly exchanges, historians Rebecca Goetz and Caleb McDaniel expressed puzzlement at Wood’s claim that historians now ignore Bailyn, presumably because he is not fragmented and postmodern enough. “I’m still teaching Bailyn on a regular basis,” wrote Goetz. “Where does he get this stuff?” “I think,” McDaniel suggested, “he just pulls it out of his dusty box of notecards,” linking to a BookTV segment in which Wood shows viewers around his office and rifles through, well, a dusty box of notecards.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with notecards. use notecards. But as with any note-taking system, you have to be careful not to let a few notes and quotations morph into a misreading of the original text. In his Weekly Standard review, Wood did just that. And in doing so, he betrayed his understanding of what historical presentism means.

Let’s look at the above paragraph. Wood uses several quotations (un-cited, as is standard practice in publications like the Weekly Standards) to demonstrate a criticism historians have made of Bailyn: that he isn’t presentist enough. Wood writes, “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.’”

Here Wood is citing an essay by Michael Zuckerman that appeared in a 1986 festschrift honoring Yehoshua Arieli. I’ll let the matter that this was written nearly thirty years ago, though the reader might assume it’s a criticism of Sometimes an Art or at least The Barbarous Years, slide. What’s more striking is that Zuckerman’s essay laments the decline of narrative, nationalist history. In particular, he worries that American historians have abandoned one of the ancient callings for historians: the crafting of an origin myth. Zuckerman’s words could have easily appeared in Wood’s review:

Historians since the sixties have been loath to allow a small, relatively homogeneous set of Americans [like the Founding Fathers] to stand transcendently for the whole society. They have grown skeptical, methodologically, of the supposition of a shared American experience . . . . And their pluralization of the past has entailed an extensive abandonment of the traditional national narrative. . . . This collapse of cultural cohesion, and especially this attenuation of origin mythology, constitutes a considerable crisis for the historical enterprise in America.[1]

Zuckerman’s criticism of Bailyn—more specifically, his Ideological Origins of the American Revolution—is that is too narrowly focused and too scientific. Bailyn fails to fulfill the historian’s ancient imperative: to give his community a story that makes sense of their past, present, and future. Bailyn’s Revolution has little “significance” outside its own eighteenth-century world, rendered “alien and inaccessible . . . by the liberalism which surfaced so swiftly upon the achievement of independence.” Zuckerman continues:

However exquisite its attunement to the temper of an earlier time, Ideological Origins fails, finally, to address the dilemmas of its own day. It is therefore powerless to bind time—powerless to mediate past and present—and therefore no origin myth at all . . .[2]

Zuckerman portrays Bailyn’s work in much the same way Wood portrays the work of later historians: too arcane, too timid, unwilling to engage the public, afraid of  grand narrative. “[A] new generation of historians,” Wood writes, “is no longer interested in how the United States came to be. That kind of narrative history of the nation, they say, is not only inherently triumphalist but has a teleological bias built into it.” Unlike Zuckerman, Wood believes Bailyn provides an antidote to this skittishness. Wood approvingly cites Bailyn’s earlier claim that colonial history enclosed “for Americans the roots of the present” and “provided basic points of reference for national self-awareness.”[3] Despite what Wood claims, he and Zuckerman want similar things from Bailyn; the difference is that Zuckerman thinks Bailyn falls short.

After quoting Zuckerman, Wood writes that Bailyn’s “desire to re-create the ‘different world’ of the past ‘as it actually was’ [Bailyn’s words] is said to be ‘politically charged,’ because, mirabile dictu, it ‘gives priority to the beliefs of historical actors’ over our present beliefs, ‘thus inhibiting a critical dialogue between past and present values.’” The quotations after “is said to be” come from James Henretta’s 1988 review of Voyagers to the West and The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History. Henretta writes:

Bailyn has defined the “ultimate stage of maturity in historical interpretation” as one “where partisanship is left behind, where the historian can find an equal humanity in all the participants, the winners and the losers, where he can embrace the whole of the event, [and] see it from all sides. . . .” Like all credos, this neutral and “anthropological” definition of the historian’s task is politically charged; it gives priority to the beliefs of historical actors, thus inhibiting a critical dialogue between past and present values.[4]

But once again, Henretta is not asking that Bailyn impose the values of the present upon the past. He doesn’t want Bailyn to write ad nauseum about how sexist and racist those dead white men were. He credits Bailyn for paying attention to the lives of slaves and indentured servants, and for celebrating the contributions of “middling” emigrants to America. Though Henretta doesn’t call for a Zuckermanesque origin myth, he wants Bailyn to be unafraid to tell a story with lessons and meanings for today. And ultimately, according to Henretta, Bailyn accomplishes this:

Bailyn’s celebration of the aspirations of middling emigrants transforms Voyagers to the West from (merely) a magnificent work of scholarship into a great work of history. It does so, paradoxically, by transcending the morally neutral bounds of “anthropological” history to propound a value-laden epic interpretation of the American experience. Like the northern emigrants themselves, Bailyn has escaped the confines of an elaborately nuanced environment, his imagination soaring to embrace the liberal idealism of the new world.[5]

Here’s the puzzle. Wood, Zuckerman, and Henretta call for historians to overcome their postmodern scruples and specialized nooks, and instead tell stories that make the past relevant to the present. Yet Wood reads Zuckerman and Henretta as accusing Bailyn of historical narrow-mindedness, refusing to admit the sins of the past and therefore unable to help “reform our present.” What’s going on here?

Let us say there are two kinds of presentism: present-blinded and present-minded. To be present-blinded is to anachronistically impose the knowledge and morality of today upon the past: to demand that historical figures see the world as we do, and refuse to see the world as they did. To be present-minded is to do history while bearing in mind that one lives in the present. The present-minded historian turns to the past and asks questions that are shaped by the world the historian lives in. While the present-blinded historian refuses to empathize, the present-minded historian must empathize. In practicing historical empathy, the present-minded historian learns to see his or her own world afresh–like an astronaut gazing at the earth.

Wood, Zuckerman, and Henretta all, to varying degrees, call for present-minded history, history that respects the past but also tells stories to the present. But Wood doesn’t recognize his own presentism; he assumes all presentism is present-blinded rather than present-minded. When he read Zuckerman and Henretta criticizing Bailyn for not being more present-minded, he thought they wanted Bailyn to be more present-blinded.

Much of the criticism of Wood has been unfair or at least unkind. I think Wood is right that historians could learn to have a little more empathy. (Honestly, we all could.) But Wood’s point would be stronger if he recognized that historians can both practice historical empathy and engage with the present. Wood knows this; he strives to do it and praises Bailyn for doing it. The problem is that we tend to conflate the present-minded and the present-minded. Thus Wood decries the presentism of historians who, to a large extent, share his conception of the historian’s task.


[1] Michael Zuckerman, “Fiction and Fission: Twentieth-Century Writing on the Founding Fathers,” in Hedva Ben-Israel et al., Religion, Ideology, and Nationalism in Europe and America: Essays Presented in Honor of Yehoshua Arieli (Jerusalem, 1986), 242.

[2] Ibid., 241.

[3] Wood is citing Bernard Bailyn, “Becker, Andrews, and the Image of Colonial Origins,” New England Quarterly 29, no. 4 (1956): 532.

[4] James A. Henretta, review of Bernard Bailyn’s Voyagers to the West and The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 19, no. 3 (Summer 1988): 141. Henretta is quoting Bernard Bailyn, “The Central Themes of the American Revolution: An Interpretation,” in Stephen G. Kurtz and James H. Hutson, eds., Essays on the American Revolution (New York, 1973), 15, 23.

[5] Henretta, review of Bailyn’s Voyagers to the West and Peopling of British North America, 142.

14 responses

  1. Thanks for your thoughts on this, William. Your analysis (along with that of Jonathan Wilson on Twitter, which, if anyone has seen it yet, can be found here: has really helped clarify for me some of my own thoughts on this debate. I particularly love your elaboration of “present-minded” and “present-blinded”, which I think is brilliantly put and ought to become a crucial part of the historian’s lexicon.

    The aspect of Wood’s critique of recent Early American historiography that I found most disappointing was that he seemed to craft a distinction between histories of the state (which I took to be synonymous with the nation, although as Jonathan Wilson suggested, that may not have been his intent) and histories of marginalized groups, the “subaltern peoples” you reference above. It seems to me that the histories of the latter are intrinsically histories of the former, since to understand their marginal status usually requires some reference to their position relative to the political authority of the day. This becomes even more salient, to my mind, when “nation” replaces “state” as your descriptive term, since nation implies a host of social and cultural allegiances that state (perhaps) does not. Others have commented cogently on this, on Twitter and elsewhere, so this isn’t an original insight, but it perhaps explains why Wood regards more recent historiography as “present-blinded” if he doesn’t recognize the connection between “recovering stories of the dispossessed” and “narrative histor[ies] of the nation,” in his words.

  2. Great post, Bill! Snark aside, and for the record, I have nothing against notecards. And I love that video you linked to, so my tweet in this case was more uncharitable than it should have been. Thanks for offering a much more substantive and thoughtful response to Wood’s piece!

    I agree with you that, if Wood is read as calling for historical empathy, few historians would disagree. This is essential to what we do, and in fact one of the key learning objectives for my history survey this semester. I think much of the upset was caused by a feeling that Wood’s assertions about a lack of empathy in recent scholarship were unfounded. He paints with a very broad brush here.

    A second worry, articulated best by Jonathan Wilson, was that Wood was implying that only narratives about “the nation,” defined by Wood in a very political, state-centered way, are the narratives of primary importance.

    As for the distinction you draw between present-minded and present-blinded, this is something I’ve thought about a lot in relation to the work I do with Historians Against Slavery. I think that in many cases, commitments in the present can actually make us better historians by allowing us to empathize with historical actors to whom we had previously been blind. The historiography of slavery since the Civil Rights movement seems to me a prime example of this.

    • Thanks, Caleb. I was probably being unfair(!) when I said “much of the criticism . . . has been unfair.” “Some of the criticism” would be more accurate. Certainly the critiques made by Wilson, you, and others have been perfectly fair and substantive. I’m just a softie.

  3. Does anyone know where Wood’s “faceless offstage menace” quotation come from? Or is that his own invented characterization?

      • I just found it. The quotation is from Charles C. Mann’s NYT review of The Barbarous Years:

        “Equally puzzling, there is little discussion of the ‘conflict of civilizations’ promised in the subtitle. After a well-wrought introduction about the original inhabitants of the East Coast, they almost disappear from the narrative, except as faceless offstage menaces. (Channeling Louis L’Amour, Bailyn twice refers to them as ‘marauding Indians.’) To be sure, he notes that the English feared and distrusted native peoples. But they also eagerly sought them as allies against the French and Spanish, made buckets of money trading with them and constantly quarreled with them over land. All sides incessantly interacted, and those interactions made native peoples, like Africans, participants in the creation of American society.”

        Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that this review is actually highly enthusiastic. It opens with a complaint that too few Americans know who Bailyn is. But it does complain that the book doesn’t cover what its subtitle says it does, and not just with respect to Native Americans.

  4. Pingback: Gordon Wood’s Notecards and the Two Presentisms | Black's Historical Miscellany

  5. I really like the point you make about “present-minded” and “present-blinded”. Speaking of which, did you mean to write “present-blinded” one of the times in this sentence? “The problem is that we tend to conflate the present-minded and the present-minded.”

    I’m confused about your comment regarding empathy. It seems to me that the kinds of histories that Wood is opposed to are doing exactly what he’s asking in showing empathy to those who aren’t elite.

    This definition of empathy that’s being proposed by Wood seems very one-sided to me. It feels like it’s code for “don’t be mean to our Founders and don’t examine the Founding myths too closely”.

    Maybe I’m being too harsh here, but it feels very conservative to me. Not conservative in a political sense, but conservative in that Wood seems to want to hold on to an idealized version of the past.

  6. I’m an amateur historian, with cherished enthusiasm for learning and much learning before me. I am educating myself about things historiographical. I have read Bailyn.
    Bill, I respect the sincerity, concept and arguments in this piece, but, permit me to say, there’s a “whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on”….
    Meta-history can too easily transform itself into something less interesting than history.

  7. Pingback: Gordon Wood vs. the New Generation of Historians | Tony Petersen

  8. Pingback: That Was The Week That Was | The Pietist Schoolman

  9. Pingback: Washington as Slave Catcher, Etc. | American Constitutional History

  10. Pingback: Wednesday Link Roundup #85: The Gordon Wood Brouhaha & Funds, Books, and Opportunities for Historians - Elizabeth M. Covart | Elizabeth M. Covart


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: