Sunday, July 17, 2005

Good history ... A while back David Greenberg had a column in Slate on academic versus popular history. His point was that the two needn't be antagonistic, and the main work with which he illustrated this was Gordon Wood's The Radicalism of the American Revolution.

To that point Wood was someone I'd long heard about but never encountered directly (except of course for the brief passage Matt Damon recites in Good Will Hunting). So with Greenberg's praise in mind I figured I'd finally give him a go.

Now that I've finished Radicalism, I have to say that Wood certainly doesn't disappoint. He may be too exhaustive at points, but other than that the book is remarkable for how coherent and accessible it remains even as it makes its most abstruse arguments. Further, it also expands the idea of history itself: although Wood relies upon a preponderance of factual evidence, he goes well beyond providing a factual record to create a kind of ethnography of late colonial and post-Independence Americans. In that sense, Wood owes as much to the sociology of Hannah Arendt as he does to the primary documents of the time.

So for the history fans among you, if you're bothered by the topical surfeits of popular histories like 1776, be sure to check out Radicalism if you haven't already. As I mentioned, it won't disappoint.


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