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Feb 20, 2005 5:37 am

American History: Right and Left ...

Thomas E. Woods, the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, explains his relationship to the League of the South at With a doctorate from Columbia and teaching at New York's Suffolk County Community College, Woods is a paleo-conservative. It isn't surprising that the discussion of his relation to the League of the South mentions Eugene Genovese and Clyde Wilson. At Histori-Blogography, Michael Benson takes a not-very-admiring look at Woods' productivity.

Several historians, more sympathetic to neo-conservatism, such as Marc at Spinning Clio and Tom at Big Tent give Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen's A Patriot's History of the United States a more sympathetic look. Personally, I've been prepared to write it off, along with Howard Zinn's A People's History. At Rhine River, my colleague, Nathanael Robinson, says:"get politics out of my history -- if you are doing history to support your political position, I'll bet you are doing bad history."

Nathanael's position cuts both to the Left and to the Right, of course; and I imagine that he intends that it should. I suspect that some of us still have ambiguous feelings about how best to handle the problem of historians' political predispositions and their work. Isn't it illusory, even deceptive, to act as if we have none and pretend that we are telling a story objectively? Is it better to forewarn readers and students of the predispositions and then proceed according to them? Do we suspend our values in the act of writing and teaching history or are those the very moments when they must be called into play?

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Carl Patrick Burkart - 2/21/2005

The thing that sets a good work of history apart from a political polemic is the bredth of research and honesty of presentation. If the research and insights are valuable even if you disagree with the conclusions, then it is a good work of history. Otherwise it's just a political screed.

Marc A. Comtois - 2/20/2005

I'd rather know an ideology going in than in trying to ferret it out myself. Of course, the real question is how these works are interpreted by the average history consumer, not the trained historian. I agree that it would be better if politics were taken out of history, but when no one can agree on what "objective" means, it is quite difficult. Perhaps the best result would be a Schweikart and Zinn co-authored work!

Ralph E. Luker - 2/20/2005

Your reminiscence about Fleming reminds me of the time one of us at Drew walked into Will Herberg's apartment, which was just across the road from the main entrance to the University. The apartment was lined with bookshelves -- such that there seemed to be almost nothing else there. My friend looked aghast and said: "Have you _read_ all those books?" Herberg said, "Yes, son, and many more." Of course, we learned years after his death that Will lied about every one of the academic degrees that he claimed; and he kept updating his birthdate that he reported to Who's Who in America so he couldn't be forced to retire, so it's possible that Will was lying about having read all the books in his apartment -- still, he knew more than anyone else on the faculty at Drew and everyone admitted as much.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/20/2005

Reading Woods' "I, Thomas" piece I discovered that we shared a teacher at Harvard: Donald Fleming, who was my intellectual history advisor and examiner. Though it turned out to be largely irrelevant to my thesis, the field that I did with him on modern European Intellectual History has paid huge dividends over the years, in my teaching and in my understanding of academics generally and historiography specifically.

Fleming's office was a wonder: books double-shelved to the high ceiling, stacked on every horizontal surface but a path to both sides of the desk and a small trough between the students' chair and his own. And he knew where every book was, too: I watched him several times jump up and go right to what he was looking for. He's a classic.

The "reading list" for the field nearly gave me a heart attack: bound, single-spaced bibliography, in two volumes.... from which you picked some specific fields and subfields and he picked out the important books for you, so it ended up being about the same reading load as my other fields. Fantastic stuff, diving back into two centuries worth of the life of the mind.

Woods apparently did US intellectual with Fleming, which is very different material.

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