BRIAN LAMB: Gordon Wood, where did you get the title, ’The Purpose of the Past’ for your current book?
GORDON WOOD: I think my editor suggested it. I think that’s - it’s hard to remember, but I think that’s what - that’s where it came from.
LAMB: What’s it about?
WOOD: ’The Purpose of the Past’? It’s a collection of reviews that I have done for ’The New York Review of Books’, ’The New Republic’ and a couple of other journals over the last 25 years. And they’re lengthy reviews, so I had a chance to say something, I think, sensible about the books I was asked to review.
LAMB: How would you define - how do you want your students to think of history in there?
WOOD: Well, that’s a great question. I think most people think of history as just dealing with the past. But I think it’s more than that. It’s a discipline. It’s a mode of understanding. When you have a historical sense, you see reality differently. And I think it takes a while to get that kind of sense, but once you have it, it opens up a whole new dimension in your view of the world, what you’re seeing. And it’s not just wallowing around there in the past, it’s not just information, it’s a mode of understanding.
LAMB: It seems like recently, I guess, maybe in the last 10 years or so, historians have become very active in politics. Is that a fair statement? And what do you think of the idea of - I’ll go back to the impeachment process when Sean Willis (ph), who you write about in your book, was very active in the 400 that signed the big ad.
LAMB: What - is that a good idea?
WOOD: Well, I think it’s, obviously, historians have lives, too, besides being historians, but I think it’s a mistake if that kind of political activism enters the historical perspective. I think it’s a mistake to use history as an instrument of politics. And unfortunately, there are historians who do do that, who bring agendas to their writing of history and are trying to influence current events by the writing of history. That’s almost akin to propaganda. So that’s not what a good historian does. I think you really have to go back and have what I would call a disinterested, which itself is a word not being used properly these days. It’s not uninterested, but a disinterested and impartial view of the past. It’s not easy, and we’re all tainted. It’s probably impossible to purely be disinterested, but you should try. I think that’s the need for all historians to have.
LAMB: How strongly have you felt about politics and politicians? And do you have a strong point of view yourself?
WOOD: I guess I am - I would call myself an independent. I’m not engaged in the sense that an activist would be. I don’t have that kind of emotional feeling. I have a distant view of things, and maybe an ironic stand on what happens. I look at contemporary politics with that point of view.
My wife has a much stronger point of view and she gets irritated with my lack of passion, if you will. But that - maybe that’s just in the DNA, whether some people have that kind of passion or not. I have a sense that things aren’t going to quite work out the way the participants expect and I - that’s the one lesson I guess I learned from history and so, I can take a kind of detached ironic stand on a lot of the politics. And when you’re at my age, it’s easy to do because you’ve seen it all before.
LAMB: If you just look around the obvious, you wrote for ’The New York Review of Books’ which is known as a liberal publication. You wrote for ’The New Republic’ which, it depends on what year, but it’s basically known to be somewhat liberal. And then, you look at the history and Newt Gingrich was the guy that touted you the most back in the ’90s.
WOOD: Well, and some people think of me as conservative and yet, I’m writing for these so-called liberal journals. But I don’t see myself as either. I would like to be stand above the fray, if you will. That’s at least the stance that I take when I look at the past. I don’t have an agenda, at least an obvious agenda, that I’m aware of that I’m bringing to the past.
LAMB: When is that - when you read a historian, when does he or she make you the maddest?
WOOD: Well, when it’s right up front and hits you right over the head that they are out to - when they say in their preface, well, this Bush administration is this and this is my - they’ll be writing about the 18th century and they’re still - they’re thinking about the present. That, it seems to me, leads to a distorted history and unfortunate, and I think there are too many people who do bring their present-mindedness to the past, which is the great sin, of course, of historians. It’s almost impossible not to bring the present to the past. I mean, we’re not antiquarians, but I think we need to be as objective as possible. And I think it’s possible to be - we know that some accounts are more objective than others and that’s all I - if someone can agree with that, then I feel I’ve won the argument.
LAMB: John Adams.
WOOD: Yes. A great guy.
LAMB: But John Adams, a very popular HBO series. We’re near the end of that seven-part series. The book is back in the stores, David McCullough’s book.
WOOD: Right. Right.
LAMB: Selling - bestseller list, already, again. He’s sold at least 2.5 million copies the time around. How did it happen though? I mean ...
WOOD: Well, I think McCullough has a special style. The book is - I reviewed it, actually, but it’s not included in this book. I reviewed it for ’The New York Review of Books’ and David McCullough liked the review, but I see it’s a book about a marriage. It’s very personal. He doesn’t deal with his political theory, which is central to Adams, and he doesn’t have much on the politics. It’s really about a marriage, and it’s a wonderful book, a human interest story. Of course, Adams and Abigail were an unusual couple. And so, I think McCullough captured that beautifully and of course, it made - it makes for a good film. Although, I hadn’t seen it. I’m looking forward to seeing it. I’m sure it will be a marvelous film focusing on these two unusual individuals.
LAMB: How many years have you taught college?
WOOD: Oh. I’ve been teaching at least a half century. I got my PhD in 1964, so and I’ve been teaching ever since. I’ve been at Brown almost 40 years, 39 years. Finally, retiring.
LAMB: Are you retiring completely?
WOOD: Yes. Well, from teaching, yes. But not retiring from history.
LAMB: I bring that up because you write about the difference between a popular historian like David McCullough who doesn’t have a PhD and yourself. Is there a difference?
WOOD: Well, I am trying to do - reach both audiences simultaneously. That is my fellow academics, as well as a larger readership, and I fall between two stools, if you will. Whereas I think what’s happened to the profession, or the academic profession, is a distancing from the popular.
When I was a youngster back in the 1950s, the professional or the academic historians, I don’t want to call -- David McCullough is the real pro. He lives off of his earnings; the academics don’t. They - back then, people like Richard Hofstadter, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Eric Goldman, Alan Nevins, wrote for both readers simultaneously, both academics and the general reader. That stopped, partly because the academics got involved in certain kinds of subjects that did not have a large appeal, gender issues and sometimes race issues. But more, I think it was just one of these things where they tuned themselves out of their responsibility to reach a larger audience.
I think - I understand that because there is a - the development of the discipline is important, and these historians are writing for one another and they’re trying to forward the discipline. But in the process, they’ve ignored the larger public for the most part, and I think there’s been this gap that has been filled by these non academics and I think there’s, in my field, there’s a half a dozen of them, Stacy Schiff, for example, Ron Truneau (ph), Tom Fleming and David McCullough, all without PhD’s, without academic positions, are reaching large numbers of people and I think, we, historians, that is those who call ourselves professional historians, who have PhD’s, have a responsibility to reach the larger public. History is not like physics. History that isn’t read by large numbers of people is not fulfilling it’s responsibility.
LAMB: In your book, there are 21 chapters and the fourth chapter is, ’History Lessons; Review of ’The March of Folly; From Troy to Vietnam’ by Barbara Tuchman’. She’s another one you see mentioned all of the time as a non ...
WOOD: Right. She’s a non academic and she was - she wrote some wonderful history. But her next to the last book, which was ’The March of Folly’, she finally decided she wanted to teach some lessons. Earlier in some of the essays she wrote, she said, ’I have no responsibility to teach lessons. My responsibility is to tell a good story.’ And she always did tell a good story, but in this one book, she decided she was going to show us some lessons, and I think it was a disaster, that book.
WOOD: Well, because she had a crude view of the lessons that we’d be taught. She talked about the folly of - her main chapter, of course, is on Vietnam and that was where she had the most evidence, but she took the American Revolution, for example, and she indicted the British leaders for being foolish and stupid as if they could have foreseen the consequences of their so-called folly. She knows the outcome and therefore, she goes back and says, well, look how stupid they were. But someone like Lord North was not stupid. She makes fun of him because he fell asleep in the House of Commons. He was one of the great parliamentarians of the 18th century, and she didn’t fully understand the period, I think, is one of the problems.
But anyway, she had a whole series of lessons she was trying to teach us, and I just don’t think those lessons are relevant. I don’t think history teaches a lot of little lessons, frankly. I think it teaches one big lesson, which is that nothing really ever works out the way the perpetrators intend. I can’t think of any major event in the history of the world that ever turned out the way the participants who launched it expected.
LAMB: Did you know Barbara Tuchman?
WOOD: I never met her, no.
LAMB: And you say here, ’When Tuchman gets to America’s involvement in Vietnam, she has the real model of political folly that was in her mind all along.’
WOOD: Right. I think that was - when she wrote the book was coming out of that experience of Vietnam and she saw that as a - and I think one can agree that it was a mistake, just as people will be angry at our Iraq intervention. It’s hard to know how things work out, of course, because we don’t have perspective, certainly not yet on Iraq, and Vietnam has turned out to be quite strange. We’re friendly now. We go over and visit. Tourists go to Vietnam. It’s just as if the war hadn’t occurred. It’s a strange kind of development that history - the results of history. Who could have predicted that in 1968?
LAMB: You have a statistic in your book that between 1970 and 1986, which is a period of 16 years, that the history degrees in colleges declined from 44,000 roughly to 16,000. And of course, what you don’t point out is how the population is a lot larger now.
WOOD: Of course. Right.
LAMB: Which makes it even more ...
WOOD: Right. There was a declining interest in history. I haven’t seen any recent statistics and it may have gone up. But it’s - certainly, history is still popular at the major institutions. At Brown, where I teach, it’s still one of the largest majors or concentrations. But I think in a lot of the colleges, it simply has - what’s passed is past and people are more interested in getting jobs. And many people, even alums or even parents of students at Brown come to me, ’My student is a history major. What does that mean? How are they going to get a job? They’re not going to be a history teacher, are they?’ And I say, ’No, no. This is the liberal arts education and it has no vocational meaning whatsoever.’ ’Well, what’s the purpose of it?’ And I said, ’Well, they’ll acquire wisdom.’ I think that’s the ultimate benefit of historical understanding, you have another dimension in your understanding of reality, and it has nothing to do with a job. It’s not vocational. But very few of the disciplines at Brown have vocational results.
LAMB: We’re in the middle of the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. And we cover a lot of Abraham Lincoln here, we’ve covered a lot of the historians over the years that write about Abraham Lincoln. I know you don’t write much about Lincoln, although you have a chapter in here. Give us your view.
WOOD: Of Lincoln?
LAMB: Of Lincoln, yes. And the history of Lincoln and the way historians treat him.
WOOD: Well, I think he is - well, as you know, the - when you do a popular polling of historians, plus the general public, Lincoln comes out either the first or second. I think Washington still is the first because that - he had to start the whole business. But Lincoln is important for saving the Union, but he’s really an anomaly. People never expected that from him. He comes out of nowhere. He has no education or college degree. Who could have thought that he would be the kind of president he was? With such sensitivity, with a sense of - a kind of tragic sense, which I think was perfect for the event that he had to lead. He is an extraordinary man and I think the world - what’s extraordinary is that the English have a statue of Lincoln outside the House of Commons. They saw Lincoln as the true American, the man who came from nowhere, and I don’t think anyone at the time could have anticipated that this - some people called him the gorilla. He was gangly and uneducated, but he had a way with words and he had something that nobody expected. And I think he transcends his whole time, because that whole mid 19th century was full of second-raters as presidents, where the nature of democracy led to that. We were just plain lucky that we got someone of Lincoln’s stature.
Now, I don’t know all of the historiography. There were more books on Lincoln probably than on any other single person in the United States, more history books. And so, one can’t keep up with that, but I think he’s been looked at from every point of view, and is an extraordinary man, there’s just no doubt of it, without any education. And of course the reason the Brits like him is because he seems to come right out of America. I mean this is only America could have produced someone in the mid 19th century like him. Uneducated, I mean he literally was a self-educated man, but with such a sensibility, such a sensitivity and sensibility that it’s just extraordinary.
Now, he - it may have been fortunate that he was assassinated, because if he had to deal with Reconstruction, he may have - the politics of it may have destroyed his reputation, may have destroyed him. So in that sense, for his reputation, for eternity or as long as the United States lives, he was lucky to, in that sense, to have died before he had to face the problems, the extraordinary problems of Reconstuction.
LAMB: You’ve never written a book on Abraham Lincoln?
WOOD: No, I never have.
LAMB: What’s your view of the history books you’ve seen? I know there are thousands of them. But if you had to pick one, is there some author about Lincoln that you would pick?
WOOD: Well, I like Doug Wilson’s stuff, who is more recent. David Donald has got a biography of Lincoln, which I think is a modern - reflects a modern sensibility. But I’m no expert. I mean Carl Sandburg I read when I was a kid, and you can’t trust him, but came from his Midwestern sensibility. But I think Donald and Wilson are the two people that I know best, but I’m not ...
LAMB: Professor Donald was at Harvard for years.
WOOD: Right. Right.
LAMB: And Doug Wilson out at Knox College.
WOOD: That’s right.
LAMB: Go back to your book, you have a review here of history’s cultural criticism, ’On Hallowed Ground: Abraham Lincoln and the Foundations of American History’ by John Patrick Diggins.
LAMB: Why did you pick that one? Chapter 19?
WOOD: Well, Jack Diggins didn’t like that review. I called him a cultural critic and he got offended. He thinks of himself as a historian. And of course, he does work in the past. And as I say in the introduction or in the afterword, I didn’t say - I said essentially not a historian, but my editor cut that out and says not really a historian, and of course I let that go, and I probably shouldn’t have because it got Diggins very angry at me. But I didn’t mean it as a negative thing. He does see himself as a cultural critic, a critic of America, like Lee Artz (ph) and others. He does deal with the past, but he’s not really my kind of historian, I guess, is the way to put it, because he does have an agenda. A quite legitimate agenda; he wants to change our culture by using history, and I think that’s a legitimate endeavor, but it’s something different from what I think of as history.
LAMB: Where is John Patrick Diggins?
WOOD: He teaches at City University of New York and he’s a very productive. He’s written dozens of books about a lot of subjects, and he’s a very bright guy, but he does have strong passions that he’s bringing to bear on all of his books, and they’re all a form of cultural criticism.
LAMB: You say - actually in your review, you said, ’Even today, he says Lincoln retains a marvelous authority among Americans’, and then you later write, ’With the brooding presence of Lincoln at his side, Diggins seems to have come to terms with the terrifying liberal reality of America.’
LAMB: What is the liberal reality of America?
WOOD: The individualism, the can we - we can make it with no sense of the tragedy of life, and I think Diggins is right about that. I think Lincoln is a - is someone that everyone should know - every American should know, if only to get some perspective on the helter skelter way in which they live. There’s a need for somehow sensing the limitations of life, the tragedy of life. I don’t mean a pessimistic view, but some sense that goes beyond, what can I acquire? What can I get for tomorrow? That get-up-and-go optimism of Americans is a wonderful thing, but it needs to be tempered, I think, by the kind of perspective that Lincoln brings to bear on it, that there is a tragic side to life, and I think Lincoln captures that, and Diggins is, himself, feels that very strongly. He’s really opposed to the - to what we call liberal America. That doesn’t mean liberal in the modern political sense, more in the individualistic sense of acquiring, buying, consuming that kind of liberal America. Individualistic where you don’t think about the community, you think only of, what can I do for myself? That’s what he means by liberal, and he thinks Lincoln is an antidote. Lincoln and his brooding sense of the tragedy of life is an antidote to that kind of liberalism.
LAMB: You say here, ’Like Lincoln, however, we must ground our acceptance in a sense of our own guilt and sinfulness and in a common moral foundation, perhaps best expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the timeless ideals of the American Revolution.’ Now the American Revolution is your topic.
WOOD: Right. Right. And I think the American revolution represents our optimistic side, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, rights, individual rights. That’s what I suppose manifestly we’re about, and that trilogy that comes out of the Declaration, I think, stands for America more than Lincoln’s brooding presence. But I think it’s nice to have a Lincoln in your past, and to think about him and what he stood for, because he did have a tragic sense of life. He always felt the world was out of his hands. He had a sense of fate. He is very un- American in that sense, when you think about it. He felt that things were being - he was being carried along as the country was by forces over which he had very little control. That’s not an American attitude. We’re much more hands on. We’re in charge of our own future. I think some of Lincoln’s sense of limitation is healthy for us to breath some humility, which I think we need.
LAMB: From your perspective as a historian and a teacher, you’ve got - they’ve just spent $80-some million out here at Mount Vernon for George Washington and his home and the education center.
LAMB: They just spent $150 million plus in Springfield, Illinois for Abraham Lincoln and his new library in the last couple of years. They’re spending millions down near Ford Theater and the Peterson House across the street where he died for a new museum and the new Ford’s Theater. There is the huge Lincoln Memorial here in Washington, DC.
LAMB: We started talking a little bit about John Adams. There’s nothing here about John Adams, except that the Library of Congress, one of the buildings is named after him, and they’re going to put a monument somewhere, maybe, in the future. Who makes this choice?
WOOD: Well, I think that is interesting, because there’s nothing on James Madison either. I mean there’s the Library of Congress building. So there are founders that have gotten neglected, and Adams and Madison are two of them, particularly Madison, who was the father of the Constitution, if any single person was. But this is a function of contemporary memory. Memory and history are two different things and historians job is to correct memory, to get it set right, but you don’t destroy memory because memory is what keeps the public interested in the past. They ...
LAMB: Explain that, though. I didn’t mean to interrupt - what’s the difference between memory and ...
WOOD: Well, memory is an emotional connection that you have with the past. At it’s crudest level, would be the cherry tree myth of George Washington that tells us what an honest man he was. Now, some of this memory is distortions and history comes along and says, ’Well, look, there wasn’t a - he didn’t cut down a cherry tree, but he was this.’ And we are in a constant tension with public memory. We, meaning critical historians, trying to correct what is the accurate picture of the past, but you can’t destroy that memory because that’s the lifeline that the ordinary person has to the past. So you deal with it and try to keep on target, try to keep it true, if you can. But memory is very important and I think these things like Mount Vernon and Colonial Williamsburg and the other living history keep memory alive for us. But unfortunately, they’re all declining in attendance, which is unfortunate. All of the living history museums seem to be declining in attendance.
LAMB: But you said that the John Adams story that David McCullough wrote is a love story.
WOOD: Yes, I think it’s story of a marriage, his book.
LAMB: Does that - I mean but why is it we - these are my words, don’t have a real clear picture of who George Washington was compared to the picture we have of Abraham Lincoln, as a person?
WOOD: Well, Washington was much more reticent in a sense. He was not a great stylist. He is, in use of words, he was not stupid, but he was uneducated, as well. He never went to college. And his words simply didn’t - don’t have the kind of tragic sense that we get from Lincoln and he just didn’t write something akin to the Gettysburg Address. There’s just nothing like that. So, Washington is not a man of words, he is - I think he’s impressive, but not the way Lincoln is impressive. And he, of course, lived out his whole life, although died relatively early at the age of 67, but nonetheless, fulfilled his terms in office and was very disillusioned to get caught up in the politics of the time, and so that he becomes the antagonist, in a sense, to Thomas Jefferson, not his immediate successor, but certainly shortly thereafter. And in some sense, there is a struggle been going on in our history books between Washington - Hamilton on one side, the federalists, and Jefferson - Madison, the republicans on another, and that’s a struggle that continues into our time. Two different views of what the United States ought to be.
Washington was not neglected. I mean the fact that you have that Mount Vernon and the amount of money that was raised. It’s a magnificent museum that they’ve done at Mount Vernon. It’s really quite impressive and a model for history museums for attracting youngsters, as well as adults.
LAMB: Let me go back to the statement you made earlier. Do you think - well, not do you think - you mentioned that the assassination of Abraham Lincoln may have made the big difference, but ...
WOOD: It made a difference.
LAMB: Let me go beyond that, why so many people write books about Abraham Lincoln? And who does he owe credit to in the distant past for setting the tone of what he was all about? And have you seen his image change?
WOOD: That’s hard for me to say, since I don’t work on him, but I’m sure his image has changed, but he did come out of that war with the assassination because it occurred on Good Friday. Think of the symbolisms that for a heavily Christian nation. His funeral was on Easter, if I remember. I mean, it was just one of these things which he seemed to be elevated to the heavens in a way that simply wasn’t possible for somebody who would have lived out his life and gotten involved in the nitty gritty politics of Reconstruction, which would have been messy for any president. And as you know, the first Johnson got impeached, not convicted, but impeached as a consequence of his involvement in Reconstruction.
So Lincoln in that sense, his reputation, it was fortunate that he was killed before he could have to deal with that - those problems. But he is such an extraordinary person. That, I think, impresses people. Coming out of nowhere. I mean no one could have anticipated - they knew he was a great speaker. I mean he was a one-term congressman. He hadn’t really had a lot of experience. He had never run a government. I mean he was never an executive. We worry now whether a senator who’s only had two years in the Senate is equipped, but this is a man who only was a one-term congressman.
LAMB: Let me ask you this, going forward, if you’re thinking about the future and you’re a historian and you’re going to write a book, David McCullough scored very successfully with John Adams, Doris Kearns Goodwin was very successful with ’Team of Rivals’.
LAMB: On Abraham Lincoln. Why do you think that was so successful?
WOOD: Well, she’s a good stylist, as well. And Lincoln is just there’s a lot of people out there that want to read anything about Lincoln. I mean, it’s the Civil War that really is the story. It isn’t just Lincoln, it’s the fact that we had this Civil War which is itself a tragedy when a country kills so many Americans, 600,000 plus, the greatest losses in our history because both sides were Americans. That war has a fascination for Americans that will never die, as long as the republic exists. So and Lincoln is there, brooding over it. It’s not just - if he had been Martin Van Buren running it or somebody else, it wouldn’t have been the same. So you have the combination of this terrible war, a bloody, bloody war by any standards together with a man who has this sensibility - a tragic sensibility, and the combination is almost irresistible for any author and so, we’ll constantly write about it.
And it’s amazing, the question I’ve always wondered about with the Civil War was, the South seceding is understandable; they were angry and they left. But why did the North care so much that they would fight for four bloody years? And it’s Lincoln who had that vision of why the United States was important, and he said it in a number of speeches; the Gettysburg Address, of course, the greatest. Why are we fighting to save the Union? Why is the Union important? Why don’t we just let them go?
And I think that makes Lincoln something special, and I think we’ll just keep writing about him forever.
LAMB: Your chapter five is, ’David Hackett Fischer...
LAMB: ... Albion’s Seed’ ’Fourth British Folkways (ph) in America’, how did that - how does David Hackett Fischer - he’s a Brandeis professor. We’ve had him here several times...
LAMB: How does he fit into the historic ...
WOOD: Well, he’s - I think he’s somebody who’s a little bit on the outside. He writes - I mean he wrote his book, ’The Crossing - Washington’s Crossing’, got a Pulitzer Prize. It’s a marvelous book. He’s a great stylist. He’s come sort of from the outside in the profession, like Joe Ellis in that sense. They are academics who have an appeal that goes beyond the academy. He isn’t just trying to further the discipline, although I think ’Albion’s Seed’ was an attempt to do that, but he got a lot of flack for that book. But I ...
WOOD: Well, because the experts came in on each area and they demolished what he said about New England, they demolished what he said about the middle colonies and so, when you make these kinds of generalizations over a long period of time, he’s covering, you’re going to - bound to make some errors or at least offend some specialist who knows some monograph that you haven’t taken account of. So he ran into that. I thought the book was - he made - he stretched to far and he paid - he tried to reach to the Dukakis - Bush election of 1988, and that was just going too far. I mean he had some references to that when he was really concentrating on the first two centuries of American history.
LAMB: But he lives in the Boston area and Dukakis was the guy...
WOOD: Well, I suppose he wanted to show that some of these traditions, he had - he was taking on the frontier myth of America, the Frederick Jackson Turner myth, which has been the most powerful image that has affected history writing in the country from the beginning. The idea that people from Europe came here to a - well, as Turner said, a virgin land, of course, there were hundreds of thousands of Indians here, but he - Turner ignored those Indians, but that this new environment, this open space affected us and created an Americanism which was different from Europe. That’s been the major theme of every historian from the beginning and it’s a kind of Turner-ite view of American history.
What Fischer did was go back to Henry Baxter Adams, not Henry Adams, but Henry Baxter Adams - or Herbert Baxter Adams, I’m sorry, who taught at John’s Hopkins and was really the founder of the discipline in the 1880s who had this germ theory that we got germs, so to speak, from Europe and that - but since Adams wrote, Turner came along and said, ’No, that’s all hogwash. What’s American it comes out of the frontier and open space.’ And that’s been the major theme. If you think of Oscar Handlin’s work or Daniel Borston’s (ph) work, they’re all Turner-ites, followers of Turner. Seeing the peculiarities of America coming out of this open society. Here comes Fischer and says, ’No. No. These things were brought from Europe. They were Scotch-Irish and that’s why they acted the way they were. The people in Virginia were slave holders back in ancient Britain that’s why they were slave - I mean he was tracing a kind of germ theory, so he’s taking on the whole profession with that book. So it’s a very courageous book. But I think he has a lot of problems with certain details that offended experts, but it’s still a very courageous and powerfully argued book that much of what is America - was America in those first two centuries was brought from Britain.
So you want to talk about the Scotch-Irish? You want to talk about Andrew Jackson with a chip on his shoulder? Well, that’s where he got it in his genes, DNA from the Scotch Irish in Britain. They are an angry, hard drinking, irritable people and they brought with them - that’s his theme in four different areas of ...
LAMB: I know for myself, it’s the only place I’ve ever seen anybody define the word Hoosier, when I was born in Indiana, and everybody asks us, ’What’s a Hoosier?’ Well, David Hackett Fischer had it as a - it’s a footnote in ’Albion’s Seed’.
WOOD: Right. Right. Right.
LAMB: But going back to your book, in the - you have an afterword after each review. You wrote these reviews over the last 25 years in ’The New York Review of Books’ and also in ’The New Republican’ and a couple of other places, and you have an afterword, and here’s what you say after the David Hackett Fischer chapter; ’In graduate school’, meaning you, where was that by the way?
LAMB: ’I was taught that the task of a historian is to describe how people in the past moved chronologically from A to B with B always closer to us in time. It seems self evident for me. It is the most important lesson I received in my training to be a historian.’ Explain more of that.
WOOD: Well, I think that historians are interested in change, change through time. And Fischer’s book suggests that there hasn’t been this kind of change through time, and so I made that part of the focus of the review, that here’s this kind of static study that we were like this from the beginning and that the Scotch-Irish gene, so to speak, DNA remained with them through two centuries. I don’t think that’s plausible. I do think there is something to be said for that because culture is important. I don’t think it was in the DNA, I do think the Scotch-Irish culture persisted for a long period of time. I don’t think it’s around - maybe it’s still around today in some parts of the South.
But I - the lesson I learned in graduate school was that the historian’s job is to explain how we get from one point further back, A, towards B, and that ultimately, we’re concerned with explaining how did we go back to a very different past. It may be a 100 years ago, it may be 10 years ago or it may be 1,000 years ago, but how do we get from that point to us today, and that is the function of history. That’s -- the need is to explain how did our very familiar world grow out of that very distant unfamiliar world, whatever point you start at back there, and you’re trying to explain how you get from a distant point, and it’s changed, because the world back there is very different. That’s the starting point, I think, for historians, and we always quote that opening from the novel, ’Go Between’ that said, ’The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.’ And I always tell my students that, so they don’t go back with a modern sensibility. You don’t - you wouldn’t go to Italy thinking, well, it’s supposed to be just like America. If you do, you’re going to have a lot of problems.
So you don’t go back into the past assuming that they’re going to be like us, and they aren’t, they’re very different. In many ways, not just in the fact that they dress differently, but that they think differently and that your job as a historian is to go back recover that world, and then explain how that distant different world comes to be us.
LAMB: Let me go to - there’s so much - a few little questions I want to ask, but I - what’s the best or most interesting history book you’ve read in recent weeks?
WOOD: Oh, boy. That’s a tough one.
LAMB: Or if you wanted to recommend something you’ve read in the last couple of months that - like you did in these reviews. Is there something new ...
WOOD: I’m trying to think of books that I ...
LAMB: I can come back to it.
WOOD: All right.
LAMB: In chapter three, in your afterword, I think it’s chapter three, you were writing about narrative history.
LAMB: First of all, quick definition on narrative history.
WOOD: It’s a story. You tell a story. This happened and then, this happened and then this happened.
LAMB: Versus what?
WOOD: Versus an analysis, where you go in and try to analyze. I mean it’s a stark difference and some of these get blended and blurred in some historian’s. I mean I try to write a kind of narrative, but that’s analytical at the same time. Kind of a rolling narrative, if you will, or a rolling analysis. But narrative, pure narrative is, I suppose, sheer storytelling with an emphasis on chronology. This happened and then, this happened and so on.
LAMB: In your afterwords, this is just - it’s not...
WOOD: What was the book? I can’t remember the book.
LAMB: Oh, it’s Middlekauff.
WOOD: Oh, yes. OK.
WOOD: Middlekauff. Yes.
LAMB: Robert Middlekauff.
WOOD: Robert Middlekauff, right.
LAMB: 1982 is when he wrote this tribute.
LAMB: Anyway, this is what I wanted to ask you about. ’I, myself, had been teaching an undergraduate course on the practice of history in which I had assigned Sartre’s novel ’Nausea’.’
LAMB: ’I subsequently dropped the novel from the course which I discovered - when I discovered that the undergraduates were taking it all too seriously.’ Explain all of that.
WOOD: Right. Well, I - that review was a little cute and I - in some sense, I regretted it after. Like now, I think I was trying to - I was reading all of these philosophers. I was reading all of this - there was a lot of epistemological debate in the ’80s about history, coming out of a man named Hayden White who had said that historians are really writing fiction. They don’t even deal with the authentic past and so on. And so I was playing with this - I was teaching a course that dealt with some of these issues and I assigned ’Nausea’ which is - has a historian as a hero, and what it is is a book written about 1939 where Sartre really plays on - he’s kind of anticipated postmodern doubts, epistemological doubts. His hero is a historian who comes to doubt that what he’s doing is effective pictures of the past. And there’s one scene in the novel where he overhears two people talking in a diner and their conversation is all erratic and so - he says - he’s thinking of Balzac, and he says, ’Balzac is supposed to be the ultimate realist in French literature, and Balzac has very set conversations, one person says this, but actual conversations are chaotic.’ And this historian has an epiphany, and he says, ”I don’t write about what really happens. I’m making it all up. It’s all too orderly.’ And so that’s the whole gist of Sartre’s, it undermines what we do and in some sense there’s some truth to that. Our history is much neater than reality. We know how crazy and chaotic reality is. When we write a history of it, it all comes in as orderly.
And so there’s a kind of fastness to that. If we tried to duplicate reality, it would be chaotic. And so, that creates a kind of doubt in people’s minds that, are historians really recreating reality?
LAMB: Let me go back to that question about the book to recommend, if you were in front of your students right now and you want to get them started on history, what’s the first book you want them to read?
WOOD: That’s a very hard question. I want them to read something that they would enjoy and a lot of guys like military history, I’d tell them, go read Rick Atkinson’s trilogy or the two volumes that he’s ...
LAMB: Current stuff?
WOOD: Yes. Current stuff on the war. I mean I read a lot of World War II stuff just for - what? Pleasure? But that makes me a typical guy who likes battles and things. But it’s - when it’s well done like Atkinson, then it’s really good history, because his is not biased. He’s far enough away from the war, that he’s got a really - although he’s written from an American point of view, but he doesn’t spare his judgments. It’s good history. It’s not in my field. It’s outside of my field, as we say, but I enjoy that kind of ...
LAMB: What would you tell the women in the class?
WOOD: Well, I think there are good - if they ask me for what they want, then I’ll tell them. I mean there are - that’s one of the things that has changed the discipline, and one of the reasons that people argue that there’s been this separation between popular and academic history is because the subject matter has changed, and there’s some truth to that. Women have invaded the profession and really are quite probably 50 percent - or coming close to 50 percent of the professors at the younger age are now women. And this is going to change the discipline. It has changed it, and they’re interested in things that are - women are interested in. And it’s not so much war and blood and guts and as they say, although - and that’s often used as to account for the gap between popular history and academic history.
And there’s a recent review by Jill LePore iin ’The New Yorker’ that makes this point, that one of the reasons why history has bifurcated is because women have now entered and have different interests. They’re not interested in generals and wars and so on. Although I would argue that back in the 1950s, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and C. Dan Woodward and Richard Hofstadler didn’t write about war. They were writing about Asia (ph) reform, and they were writing for a popular audience.
LAMB: So what book would you recommend to the women?
WOOD: Well, I mean if they - some of them like war, but I guess if they said to me that they wanted to know something about what was women’s lives like, I’d give them Laurel Ulrich book on ’A Midwife’s’ Tale’, which is a marvelous study of a midwife in Maine in the late 18th or early 19th century. What’s amazing about it because she has no public events. She’s just a midwife. She doesn’t know that there’s a War of 1812. It just passes her by, which is helpful to bring us an authentic view of what most people probably didn’t experience these headline events the way we tend to write about them, especially in a country as localized and decentralized as early America was.
LAMB: I was at a social studies - high school social studies meeting in Greensboro, and they had a lot of displays around and I was standing in front of a display of - they had posters of Jefferson, Hamilton - maybe not Hamilton - Madison, and Washington. And a teacher walked buy, a male teacher walked by, and he looked up and somebody said to him, ’Would you like to see our posters?’ And he said, ’I am not interested in white men and what they had to say about anything’ and he kept on walking and I wondered what that was all about because you write about that in here.
WOOD: Yes. I think - I understand that. There’s so much emphasis on these great white males that accomplished all of this and it does, I think, race the hackles of many modern - younger, modern historians who - and I quite understand that because these great men, however dominant they were, were not the source of success of the society. Leaders are important, but they are not the secret. What you really need is a society and if you talk about the American Revolution, George Washington was important, but he did not, by himself, win the Revolution. And I think it’s important to emphasize, what were ordinary people doing? I have no argument with historians who want to write social history. I think there’s been marvelous social history. There’s been wonderful -- like Phil Morgan’s stuff on slavery, wonderful accounts of slavery, as much as you can from the slaves point of view. That’s the kind of book that I would value and think highly of. It’s not about great white men. It’s all about a culture and a society of slaves, as much as one can recover, and I think Morgan has done that, of what slave life was like in 18th century Carolina and in Virginia. And that’s a real tour de force if you can do that, and he’s done it.
LAMB: Chapter 20, it’s a book by Gary Nash, who is ...
WOOD: Oh, yes. Gary Nash is probably the foremost - he’s about my age and he’s retired now, he taught at UCLA for years, and he represented I suppose what you’d call the neo-progressive wing, carrying on from Mel Jensen and others at the Wisconsin School, as it was called, although he never was attached to that school. But he always stood for writing about the oppressed and people who were forgotten, and he was the one who first brought race and Indians and -- into the story well before it became much more popular. And so, he’s had a distinguished career, and this was a kind of summation of his work, only I think in his effort to try to make these people, these forgotten people important in the Revolution, he ended up distorting the story. It just doesn’t - it doesn’t work for the American Revolution his kinds of concerns. The idea that black slaves contribute to the Revolution, they didn’t, they were victims of the Revolution. The Indians were also victims of the Revolution. And somehow the - he had an odd time trying to fit his interests into the story of the Revolution and making these people heroes and it led to, I think, an anachronistic account.
LAMB: Well, in your afterwords and that’s something that you wrote, what? In the last year?
WOOD: Well, probably two or three years ago.
LAMB: But your afterwords come...
WOOD: Oh, yes. The afterwords I had written in the last year, yes.
LAMB: Yes. The review was in 2005, but all of these afterwords are kind of your afterthoughts.
WOOD: Right. Yes. Exactly.
LAMB: Anyway, I just wanted to ask you about this sentence, ’Yet, so suffocating has been the stress on’ and in quotes, ’”race, class, gender”’ unquote, ’ issues that sometimes beginning graduate students’, these are your words, ’ hesitate to write about anything else.’
WOOD: That’s right. I think there’s a lot of pressure on beginning graduate students to take those subjects and write about them. That is I think lamentable. I have a friend who teaches at a very distinguished university, and she told me that she worked on Hamilton, and she told me that she got accused of, ’Why are you working on that dead white male?’ There’s enormous cultural pressure to work on race, gender issues. Class, less so, it’s amazing. Although they - the trilogy is usually together and it’s - the profession is quite aware of this, and there’s sometimes a sense of irony about it, and there are students who, of course, say, ’No, I’m going to write about what I want to write about.’ But it’s not easy to do that when your director, your dissertation director says, ’No, this is the kind of thing that I value and that think the profession values.’
That’s another thing. Of course, people are being hired who’d have those kinds of subjects. I know this. I have a daughter who’s in the academic world, and she did write about race issues, and it was just built into the graduate program that she was in that she would do this. And I think that - and it’s understandable because those are major - that’s a major domestic issue that we face as we’re seeing in this campaign. So I think it’s understandable, but one would like a little more breadth and a little more diversity, at least the willingness of directors to allow the students to find their own way.
LAMB: Where is your daughter now?
WOOD: She’s at Illinois State.
LAMB: Doing what?
WOOD: She’s teaching history. She works in a modern period. She’s got a book coming out at the University of North Carolina on lynching and the spectacle of lynching in the early 20th century, the way it was played up in movies and other ways. And I’m really happy about it. UNC, University, was where my first book was published. So I’m kind of excited about that.
LAMB: What’s her name?
WOOD: Amy, Amy Wood.
LAMB: In the same chapter, earlier on race, gender and history writing, you mentioned ’The National Standards for the United States History: Exploring the American Experience’. That was 1994. Do we have national standards? Whatever happened to all of that?
WOOD: Oh, I think it all fell apart. I mean ...
LAMB: You think ...
WOOD: Well, there is some - no, I don’t think - I mean I think that can’t be dictated to by government or some - that just runs against the grain of Americans to have some super-intending body coming down and tell you. There’s enough of that that goes on in the state level where superintendents of schools tell the teachers, ’This is what you’ve got to teach and these are the books you’ve got to use. ’ And state boards do that, too. And the idea of the national government doing that, that just - they do that in England, but England’s a small place compared to the United States. I like the diversity. I like the local control. It does lead to abuses. There are localities where the wrong kind of history would be taught, but somehow it strikes me as un-American to have some bureaucrat at the national level dictating what should be taught in your little town.
LAMB: We have very little time left, but I want the Gordon Wood index or list of things that somebody reading history should take into account. You pick up a book. What would you advise people to know before they drink all of this in without ...
WOOD: Well (INAUDIBLE), first thing he said was, ’Well, know who the historian is.’ I think you should read the preface carefully. See if this person has got an agenda and tells you where he or she is coming from. Sometimes they do, they’re quite frank these days, and there are a couple of books where I mentioned this, where they’re writing about 18th century America, but they talk about the Bush administration in the preface. That kind of is a - should be a warning that this is a book that the person has got some kind of present-day political agenda and it usually affects the kind of history they write.
So I guess you have to look at the preface the first thing you do and find out where is this historian coming from. Do they have some agenda that they want to use the past to promote?
LAMB: What else?
WOOD: Well, then it has to be a subject that you’re interested in , and I think it’s hard because it’s not vetted, but the books - there are just so many books coming out now, it hard to know. It’s almost like the Internet. It’s hard to know anything is being careful editing, careful vetting, so you get a lot of really odd stuff lying around even from legitimate publishers. It’s crazy. I mean, we know expect that on the Internet because there’s no vetting and so you get oddball notions, but books, well...
LAMB: As you know, Shelby Foote wrote his million words on the Civil War without a footnote. Is it a good idea to have footnotes or not?
WOOD: Well, footnotes, I think, give you a way of checking on things. But they aren’t completely essential, I suppose. They’re a way of controlling, so you can follow things up and find out, has this person distorted an account? I mean Foote’s account of the Civil War is a great read and there’s so much information available elsewhere about those battles that I don’t think you have to worry so much about someone like Shelby Foote. You’re reading it for - as a good read and I don’t think - he probably has his own biases that are built in there, but you can account for that, because usually the people who read that have read hundreds of other books on the same battles and just keep going back to it.
LAMB: Have you talked to Ron Chernow about his George Washington book?
WOOD: I haven’t. I have never met Chernow. He’s one of the few popular - probably the only one of the major popular historians that I haven’t met, personally met.
LAMB: Do you think he will have the same success with that George Washington book, say as David’s ...
WOOD: Oh, as David - no. McCullough is in a different league from the rest of us. It’s hard to explain. I mean he sold over - you mentioned two million. I thought it was 1.6 million, but even that’s enormous. Nobody comes close to that kind of sales.
LAMB: Are you going to write more?
WOOD: Oh, I’m going to continue. Yes. I have an Oxford history of the early republic coming out probably next year.
LAMB: Done yet?
WOOD: Oh, it’s done. Yes. From my point of view, it’s done. But it’s big. It’s one of those big Oxford histories that 900-plus pages. So it’s ...
LAMB: How long did it take you to write that?
WOOD: Oh, I’ve been working on that for 10, 15 years, but I stop and do other things because it was so massive because it covers 1789 to 1815 and it has to cover every event in that period.
LAMB: In our last minute, Gordon Wood, you were born where?
WOOD: Concorde, Massachusetts.
LAMB: You went to undergrad where?
WOOD: Tufts, Tufts University.
LAMB: Did you get a master’s or go right to PhD?
WOOD: No. I got a master’s on - I was in the Air Force for three years, came out, went to graduate school, got a masters, as they do it, at Harvard; as you pass by, you pick up a master’s at the end of the first year and then got a PhD in 1964.
LAMB: What was your dissertation on back then?
WOOD: It was the first book I wrote which is the creation of the American republic, which is a constitutional study, political theory and in some respects, my most important book, most influential book.
LAMB: And you - it’s still in print?
WOOD: Oh, yes.
LAMB: You’ve taught at the Brown since ’69.
LAMB: How many children?
WOOD: I have three.
LAMB: Where did you meet your wife?
WOOD: In undergraduate school at Tufts.
LAMB: And you’re going to continue to live in Providence when you retire?
WOOD: Oh, I think so. Yes.
LAMB: The name of this book is called ’The Purpose of the Past’. Gordon S. Wood. ’Reflections on the Uses of History’. We’re out of time. And I thank you very much.
WOOD: Thank you.