This year's glut of summer books brings with it several new specimens of "Founders' Chic," a sub-genre of pop history for which there seems to be a just about unlimited market. At least one of this season's offerings comes from a reputable scholar: Gordon S. Wood of Brown University. Berkeley professor emeritus Robert Middlekauff reviews Wood's Revolutionary Characters in the Washington Post. I have a review of it myself in the new issue of The American Conservative, which ought to be in shops and subscribers' mailboxes within a week or so. It's a difficult book to review because Wood presents deceptively simple arguments: when summarized by reviewers they look like nothing very surprising, but the power of his analysis is in adding fresh life to interpretations that have become either rote or unfashionable in scholarly circles. I was grateful to have 2400 words or so for my review in TAC; it takes a bit of space to get across what sets Wood's book apart from — and above — the pack.
Then there's Bill Bennett's America: The Last Best Hope, a 500-page history of America from Columbus to Woodrow Wilson that comes in for a drubbing from the New York Observer. I thought the reviewer was exaggerating when he wrote, "It takes a man with a certain singular talent to write a history of America empty of originality and devoid of insight." Surely it's much easier to write a by-the-numbers history of America without originality or insight than to produce one that breaks new ground. But then I had a look at the book for myself and, sure enough, its most remarkable quality is its blankness. Not scholarly detachment — not at all — but a simple unwillingness on the part of Bennett's ghostwriter (I presume) to attempt any kind of argument at all. It's not a badly written book, if one chooses to overlook the author's predilection for emphatic italics (three or four to a page) and chatty prose, but it has nothing at all to say. The Observer reviewer is also quite right to scoff at "Bennett's" bibliography, which consists almost exclusively of a few classic general works. The reader would be better served by consulting them directly than bothering with the "Bennett" re-write.
There's quite a contrast between Bennett's book and Wood's. The latter can take well-worn material and make something compelling out of it, whether or not we already know the story. Bennett's book is an exercize in recitation; he's not even arguing a particularly hard neocon line. Perhaps a product without any daring or perspective at all simply sells better.