Not long ago, the history shelves were dominated by books about the Civil War and World War II. But no more. From David McCullough’s 1776 to Joseph Ellis’s First Family: Abigail and John Adams to Ron Chernow’s Washington, the last decade has seen a flood of books about the American Revolution. Prominent among them are books by Gordon S. Wood, the Pulitzer and Bancroft award‚ winning historian, now Alva O. Way University Professor and Professor of History Emeritus at Brown University. Wood can talk about today’s titles while offering some perspective. His first book, The Creation of the American Republic, appeared in 1969.
Asked about today’s current Revolutionary fervor, Wood has a sure response: To be an American is to believe in something, not to be something. Of ever more varied ethnicities, Americans define themselves by the ideals articulated at the nation’s founding. So, says Wood, it’s natural at times of uncertainty to refresh our sense of national identity by looking back at that time. Laura Stickney, Wood’s editor at Penguin Press, concurs. I think interest in this extraordinary time period has been growing, she says. In our fractious time, we read about this period to see what might be missing in our leadership.
Not that Wood wants to lecture anyone, even the Tea Partiers and radical Democrats among us. He’s telling us not to take sides in the past, not to interpret history in terms of our obsessions today, explains Stickney. Instead, as Wood himself says, he wants readers to realize how creative the Revolution was and how it is still with us. To that end, he has aimed throughout his career to give a more refined view of a period drenched in myth and often used as a weapon in political debate.
Readers who want an overview of his work will welcome The Idea of America (Penguin Pr: Penguin Group (USA). ISBN 9781594202902. $29.95), forthcoming in May 2011. A collection of essays, the book spans Wood’s entire career while focusing on the Republic and constitutionalism. Gordon has been writing for a long time, says Stickney, and this is a chance to put his work in context.
And it really is a book of ideas. Notes Stickney, Republicanism was to the 18th century what Marxism was to the 19th century, and Wood has spent a half century exploring just how important the republican idea was. While many current titles on the Revolution are biographies, Wood is more concerned with accomplishment than personality. We tend to focus on great men, and they were great men, he says, but it’s the whole society coming along with them that interests me. Chalk one up for the American people, and give them Wood’s book come spring. It’s a book about us.
photo (C) John Abromowski, Brown University