Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Getting Lost

· January 21st, 2016 · 10 Comments

Is the WMQ really in danger of “losing its way” as Gordon Wood says it is? Josh Piker looks at just what we mean when we talk about #VastEarlyAmerica and responds to that charge.

Karin’s yearlong tour through #VastEarlyAmerica will be fascinating to follow, and I am very much looking forward to the conversations that ensue.  With those dialogues and debates in mind, it is worth recalling that the vastness that Karin seeks to document and discuss has been at the center of the William and Mary Quarterly’s offerings for a while now.  That fact has helped to shape our field in ways that alarm some of our colleagues.

Almost a year ago, for example, Gordon Wood published a review of Bernard Bailyn’s Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History.  In this piece, Wood heaps praise on Bailyn and criticism on the field of early American history, including the Quarterly.  The review includes the following paragraph:

“For many [early Americanists], the United States is no longer the focus of interest. Under the influence of the burgeoning subject of Atlantic history, which Bailyn’s International Seminar on the Atlantic World greatly encouraged, the boundaries of the colonial period of America have become mushy and indistinct. The William and Mary Quarterly, the principal journal in early American history, now publishes articles on mestizos in 16th-century colonial Peru, patriarchal rule in post-revolutionary Montreal, the early life of Toussaint Louverture, and slaves in 16th-century Castile. The journal no longer concentrates exclusively on the origins of the United States. Without some kind of historical GPS, it is in danger of losing its way.”

I should pause at this point and say that I have great deal of respect for Wood’s scholarship.  His 1966 article in the Quarterly is one of the most important essays ever published in the journal, and both Radicalism and Creation helped orient me when I was just starting out in the field.  He is not, it is true, in my very small personal pantheon of scholars who pass The Mickey Mouse Test—“I’d read an essay about Mickey Mouse if James Merrell wrote it”—but I am predisposed to take Wood’s concerns seriously.  His contributions to the field, and particularly to our understanding of the early nation, are profound.

And though I will explain why I disagree with his conclusions, I’m also not a fan of the style of argumentation—built around the decontextualized enumeration of topics that are implicitly sneer-worthy—that Wood has adopted here.  It reminds me of the way the New York Times used to deal with the MLA’s conference whenever it was held in New York City.  In my memory, at least, all the reporter in question seemed to do was browse through the conference program, list a few of the more risible deconstructionisms in paper titles, gesture at the panels that encompassed S&M and Onanism, exclaim “Oh, the Humanities,” and the article was done.   A serious topic of the sort that Wood seeks to tackle—the scope of an expansive field—would seem to merit a more rigorous methodology.

With that in mind, perhaps we could think a bit about Wood’s own categories of selection, about the essays he included in his list to demonstrate the Quarterly’s waywardness and the articles that he excluded.  Let’s start with the articles that made his list.  Two of them come from April 2013’s special issue, “Centering Families in Atlantic History”: Jane Mangan’s “Moving Mestizos in Sixteenth-Century Peru: Spanish Fathers, Indigenous Mothers, and the Children in Between,” and Nancy Christie’s “’He Is the Master of His House’: Families and Political Authority in Counterrevolutionary Montreal.”  Joining them in the Pantheon of Indistinct Mushiness are Philippe R. Girard and Jean-Louis Donnadieu’s “Toussaint Before Louverture: New Archival Findings on the Early Life of Toussaint Louverture” from January 2013 and Nancy van Deusen’s “Seeing Indios in Sixteenth-Century Castile” from April 2012.

What do these pieces have in common?  Geography is part of the answer.  The journal is “losing its way,” Wood says, and “[w]ithout some kind of historical GPS” we might wind up in Peru, Canada, Haiti, or Spain, rather than remaining within the geographic limits of the modern United States.  But geography isn’t the only answer to that question.  Language is another.  All of these essays focus on non-English speakers.  And when you look at what articles didn’t make Wood’s list from the Quarterly’s 2012 and 2013 offerings, it’s even clearer that his category of selection privileged language as much as geography.

What essays didn’t make the list?  Well, let’s leave aside the fact that, in picking these four examples from among the essays published by the Quarterly in 2012 and 2013, Wood had to winnow out a number of articles—forums on mercantilism and the ratification of the Constitution, essays on Common Sense and the structure of the British Empire—that clearly fit within the bounds of his preferred historical project: exploring the origin of the United States.  Given the nature of the argument he’s making, perhaps those pieces should’ve been acknowledged?  But doing so would have undermined at least part of his polemic, and so it’s not surprising that they weren’t included.

But Wood also didn’t choose to criticize the decision to publish articles that focused on the British experience in the Caribbean or Africa, even though those places are clearly outside the boundaries of the United States.  And he likewise didn’t list essays dealing with French speakers in Illinois and Louisiana, or Spanish speakers in Florida, or Cherokee speakers in Tennessee.

So, if we combine what Wood included and what he didn’t, we come up with a pretty simple two-part rule for what the Quarterly should publish: If you spoke English outside what is now the United States, you’re eligible for incorporation into early American history; and if you spoke anything at all within the bounds of the modern U.S., then you too can be part of that nation’s history.

I find it difficult to characterize that sort of approach to early American history.  It’s parochial, but not entirely; it’s ethnocentric, but not exclusively.  Mostly, it seems confused, arbitrary, and—given Wood’s preferred project of focusing on “the origins of the United States”—self-defeating.

Early America was an expansive place—and an inclusive one.  The early American world stretched to Peru and Spain and beyond; it included speakers of dozens of languages and natives of innumerable polities.  And the inhabitants of that world knew all of that.  Wood uses the United States as an argument for limiting the horizons of early Americans and restricting their conversations in ways that do violence to their experiences and understandings.  He turns the nation into a screen that allows us to see only certain places and a filter that permits us to hear only some voices.  And then he asks how, given this subset of places and that limited number of voices, Wood’s own United States came to be.

It’s hard to have faith in any answer that might come from such an exercise, but Wood does.  I prefer to have faith in the possibilities inherent in a field of historical inquiry that sees the emergence of the United States as an important answer to the question of “What matters about early America?,” but hardly the only answer.

But, again, I have a lot of respect for Wood, and he’s not entirely wrong in that the question of what constitutes early America has engaged, excited, and vexed generations of scholars.  Clearly, he’s right that the emergence of the United States is a topic of real importance.  Moreover, turning to the subject of “vastness,” I am very aware, for example, that the Quarterly is a journal not of “early modern history” but of “early American history.”  As the Omohundro Institute’s website puts it, “Our scope encompasses the history and cultures of North America from circa 1450 to 1820 and includes related developments in Africa, the British Isles, the Caribbean, Europe, and Latin America.”  And I would argue that the journal’s readers support the vision of an early American history that is vast but limited.  Certainly the pattern of reader downloads suggest that.

The five most popular articles in Quarterly history—as measured by JSTOR downloads—are so well known that I’ll just list them by their authors’ last names: Eltis, Salisbury, Merrell, Richter, and Morgan.  Of course, in terms of Wood’s preferred subject, those articles might seem off-topic.  One-word summaries of the first four articles might well be: slavery, Indians, Indians, and Indians.  To be sure, we do get to Morgan at #5 and thus could be moving into Wood’s chosen territory.  Except that #5 is not that Morgan.  Number 5 on the list is Jennifer—not Edmund—Morgan and her wonderful article on images of African women’s bodies.  You really only get to something that might be what Wood has in mind at #6, which is Al Young’s article on George Robert Twelve Hewes.  And even that piece is not exactly the sort of essay that Wood himself writes.  To find something truly Woodian you have to move down the list to #14, where we find Wood himself.  As of September 30, 2015, his 1966 article has been downloaded 10,310 times.

But while the JSTOR rankings demonstrate that “the origins of the United States” isn’t the topic at the center of the journal’s most downloaded articles, those same numbers do speak to the readers’ focus on an early American history that is centered on North America and the Atlantic world.  That’s a vast swath of territory, of course, but it does raise the question of how much time this journal should devote to essays about, say, Argentina, the Pacific islands, Ireland, or Germany.  For my money, there is no clear-cut answer.  Unlike Wood, I don’t know of a hard-and-fast rule we can apply to separate “early America” from those places.  The answer—“early American” v. “not so much”—depends on an essay’s topic and its author’s approach to it, not on whether it is situated within the boundaries of the modern United States or focused on a particular linguistic group.  And we as a field would be better served by considering how we can do justice to the vastness of the early American world, rather than by pursuing a misleading coherence or an artificial simplicity.

Or, put more simply, I believe that early Americanists should be striving to get lost, at least as Wood defines the term.

–Josh Piker

10 Responses

  1. […] an old-fashioned early American smackdown over at the Omohundro Institute blog:  William and Mary Quarterly editor Joshua Piker engages Gordon Wood’s critique of the journal–and the wider field of early American history and culture.  While waiting 11 months to […]

  2. Historiann says:

    Thanks for this response–I’ve highlighted it and added my own over at my blog:

  3. Steven C. HAHN says:

    Stay lost. Keep it messy. We’re with you, Josh!

  4. Kristen Epps says:

    Amen. I think a lot about geography and boundaries in my own research, and I believe your response is on point.

  5. Kathleen DuVal says:

    Wonderful piece. The WMQ has led the way in the past few decades, as it did for the century before that, in defining, reflecting, and forwarding cutting-edge early American history. I don’t know where the field will go next, but I know the WMQ and the Institute will be there.

  6. Larry Cebula says:

    Wood is all about defining scholarly boundaries, and has been at least since his review of Schama’s Dead Certainties way back in ’91. I disagree with Wood but love him for stirring the pot.

  7. Kevin Gannon says:

    Wonderful essay here, and as a US/LatAm historian currently writing a Continental History project, this was really helpful in crystallizing and affirming things running around in my head. Also, your piece here responded so much better to Wood’s lament than my visceral reaction would have done. Thank you for writing it!

  8. James Lindner says:

    All history is important. The emergence of the United States is as equally important as the emergence of any other Western Hemisphere nation. To focus exclusively on one (US) is a disservice to not only to the scholars who research and analyze those developments, but also ignores the original decisions of the exploring countries to reach beyond the known horizons of their age.

    I see the United States as emerging from the broader backdrop of the Age of Exploration. European powers in, say 1500, did not get together and say “let’s explore the unknown, set up some colonies, and hopefully a new nation will emerge.” No, they were rivals jockeying for position and happened upon a new world that each of them attempted to settle in ways that would promote their collective national (imperial) self interests. That a nation such as the United States did emerge owes to circumstances beyond the vision of the exploring powers. After all, other nations, Brazil, Argentina, Canada, Ecuador, Panama, etc. also eventually emerged. Perhaps it has more to do with human nature and distance than any other factor. At various times throughout the colonial period people in all corners of the Americas were able to come to terms with their experience and how it had come to differ from whatever exploring power they had derived from.

  9. […] continue to debate what/where/who constituted early America. Today’s advertisement argues for a Vast Early America […]

  10. Simon Middleton says:

    Great response. Thanks to Josh (and GW) for providing great discussions starters for my early American historiography class!

Leave a Reply