Founders’ Keepers

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.

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4 thoughts on “Founders’ Keepers

  1. R J Stove May 29, 2006 / 11:44 pm

    Dan, can you recommend to me an absolute beginners’ guide to (a) the Founding Fathers, (b) the Civil War? Being shamefully ignorant of both topics, I’m seeking something that is, while perhaps a bit more detailed than Wikipedia, written still very much with the tyro in mind. Revisionist stuff of the Charles Beard or Tom Di Lorenzo type is of no earthly use to me, I’m afraid, because I simply don’t know enough of the basics that the revisionists are assailing.

    Maybe a schoolbook from, say, the 1930s (recent enough for passions to have been spent, but old enough to be totally devoid of political correctness or Bennett-style rhetoric) is the way to go with both topics. Yet do such schoolbooks exist? Any advice greatly appreciated.

  2. Daniel McCarthy May 30, 2006 / 5:53 am

    Edmund S. Morgan's The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89 remains a classic narrative political history covering the period from the Revolution to the ratification of the Constitution. You can chase it with Wood's Revolutionary Characters, if my review in TAC makes it sound at all worthwhile — it contains good basic summaries of the character and philosophy of the eight Founders it treats, as well as bringing the reader up to speed with basic scholarly and popular questions about them.

    For (b), I don't think I can recommend anything more highly than The Civil War: A Narrative, by Shelby Foote. It's three volumes of graceful prose (and solid scholarship) for a literate lay readership.

  3. R J Stove May 30, 2006 / 9:56 am

    Thanks for this, Dan. Much appreciated; for a while there I feared I would have to go back to the Horrible History of America which my small nephews revere so much (and which, to do it justice, taught me certain facts), but which is rather lacking in bibliographical street cred, shall we say.

    Three volumes of Shelby Foote sound eminently manageable to a novice. I read the three volumes of John Julius Norwich’s Byzantium years ago, and they formed an ideal introduction to Greek Christendom. Unfortunately Norwich doesn’t write about US politics.

  4. Daniel Larison May 30, 2006 / 3:21 pm

    Lord Norwich writing American history? May we never fall so low! On the Byzantine side, if I might interject in the name of good scholarship everywhere, Norwich’s books are very far from the best that you could have done. If I might suggest some alternatives, for late antiquity I would recommend Averil Cameron’s The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity, and for the general history of Byzantium Ostrogorsky’s The Byzantine State remains the best one-volume history from Justinian to 1453.

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