Acknowledging a Master Historian

9780195039146As a graduate student in Philosophy at the University of Maryland I concentrated on philosophy of history.  While much of the literature in this sub-discipline continues to address questions first formulated at the height of the Logical Positivist Movement, I was much more focused on empirical questions that were more closely connected to actual working historians.  So, I wasn’t weighed down with the problem of objectivity or causation; rather, I was interested in how historical debates evolve and how various competing interpretations are evaluated within the historiography.  As I was thinking about a possible thesis topic my adviser suggested that I utilize a case study to help ground my thinking.  I received permission to take a graduate level history seminar and ended up registering for Prof. Ronald Hoffman’s seminar on the American Revolution.  The first evening was a real eye-opener as I stared at a syllabus that outlined about 1,000 pages a week.  The first week included all of Gordon Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787.  Compared to a philosophy seminar the amount of reading was overwhelming and I even thought about dropping out.  Somehow I managed to make my way through just about all of it only to show up for the second session having learned that few people actually read it.  It turns out that some graduate students simply go through a number of book reviews.  I certainly can understand and empathize with such a decision and I will admit that on occasion I did take the easy way out, but I am so glad that I didn’t that first week.  Wood’s book was a revelation to me.  The book is clearly the product of a creative and analytically sharp mind.  This was a Revolution that was completely new and full of questions and issues that I had never thought about before.  Most importantly, it made me want to understand much more about the Revolution and the Early Republic.

The seminar provided me with a thorough grasp of the various schools of thought beginning with the earliest histories of the Revolution through the Progressive, neo-Progressive, Whig, and neo-Whig interpretations.  I must have read at least twenty books, not to mention the many journal articles.  The seminar taught me how to think about the process of writing history and how interpretations evolve over time and why.  Since then I’ve retained my interest in this period of American history and, specifically, the work of Gordon Wood.  My hardbound copy of The Radicalism of the American Revolution is held together with a rubber band and his short survey of the Revolution is used in my own survey classes.  With that in mind, I must admit that today I snuck off campus to pick up Wood’s new book, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815.  The book is part of the Oxford History of the United States, which makes Wood the ideal author.  Like the rest of the books in the series, this is a thick one numbering 700 pages, but I suspect that it is going to be a page turner like everything else he has written.

If I sound a bit over the top than you will have to excuse me.  Now seems like a good enough time to admit that most of my heroes are intellectuals.  I make no apologies for that.  I place a great deal of value on people who are not afraid to use their minds and who enrich my own life by forcing me to think harder about a host of issues. Gordon Wood has managed to do that consistently over the years and I suspect he is about to do so again.

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12 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Oct 15, 2009 @ 10:52

    The following comment was left by R.B. Bernstein in response to the above references to his books. His comment was lost in the transfer of the blog between hosts:

    Thank you for your kind words about my FOUNDING FATHERS RECONSIDERED and my THOMAS JEFFERSON. I am honored.

  • Brookdalian Oct 9, 2009 @ 7:21

    Reading Wood's “The Creation of the American Republic” in college was a prime factor in my decision to pursue a graduate degree in American history. As you rightly note, it's a deeply intellectual work, but what gave it its powerful effect on me was the grace with which it was written. I've read everything Wood's written since, and I'm awaiting the arrival of “Empire of Liberty” as I write.

    Larry Hartzell

    • Kevin Levin Oct 9, 2009 @ 7:26

      I am about 50 pages into “Empire of Liberty” and thoroughly enjoying it. Best of all, my classes are just beginning to study this period. I may even photocopy a few pages for them.

  • bdsimpson Oct 8, 2009 @ 0:07

    Gordon Wood is simply a very smart guy.

  • acwresearcher Oct 7, 2009 @ 20:18

    While I have never read anything by Wood, I appreciate what you said about “intellectual heroes.” I'm still getting serious about reading scholarly works, but I've always tried to find people smarter than I am who constantly keep me working to get better at teaching history and, in general, just thinking about history differently. Thanks.

    • Kevin Levin Oct 7, 2009 @ 20:22

      Thanks Greg. You should definitely check out one of Wood's books. You won't regret it.

  • robwick Oct 7, 2009 @ 20:01

    Agree wholeheartedly with you on Gordon Wood. My first experience reading his work was with “The Purpose of the Past” which is a collection of his book reviews with updated conclusions. Given my general positive attitude toward the Oxford series, this one will definitely rate a place in my library.

    By the way, have you read Richard Bernstein's “The Founding Fathers Reconsidered”? I just finished it this evening as was blown away. His book should be read by everyone who ever purchased “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers” simply because Bernstein doesn't take this to a “right” or “left” plateau but rather seems about as balanced as can be possible. If you haven't read it, do so.


    • Kevin Levin Oct 7, 2009 @ 20:03

      I read Bernstein's last book on Jefferson, which is in my mind the best concise biography. It is also published by Oxford Press. It's not really worth comparing Bernstein with Crocker. Simply put, the former is a serious scholar while the latter takes a child's view of the past. What more can one say.

      • robwick Oct 7, 2009 @ 20:25

        Just noticed in the New York Review of Books that Wood called Bernstein's book on Jefferson “the best short biography of Jefferson ever written”. Now I have another book to find and buy.


        • Kevin Levin Oct 7, 2009 @ 20:27

          You can't go wrong. I would also consider Joseph Ellis's _American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson_.

          • Kevin Levin Oct 15, 2009 @ 5:52

            The following comment was left by R.B. Bernstein in response to the above references to his books. His comment was lost in the transfer of the blog between hosts:

            Thank you for your kind words about my FOUNDING FATHERS RECONSIDERED and my THOMAS JEFFERSON. I am honored.

  • msimons Oct 7, 2009 @ 13:29

    Boy Kevin I don't read enough out side of the Bible and Civil War History books. When I saw Gordon Wood I thought you were go to talk about this guy.

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