How not to review a book.

6 08 2010

Via Ralph, I see that a biography of Staughton Lynd I heard about at the AHA a few years back is out now. Too bad the New Republic let someone who wants to turn the historiographic clock back to 1960 review it. I admit that I haven’t gotten a look at the book itself yet (though it’s definitely going on my wish list), but I still think I know enough in order to break down the ridiculously anachronistic last sentence here:

Like Progressive historian Charles Beard, Lynd accused the founders of staging a counter-revolution that betrayed the democratic potential of the early republic. Yet Lynd went “Beyond Beard,” reviving the abolitionist interpretation of the Constitution and moving slavery from the margins to the center of debates over the founding. The righteous indignation he applied to these difficult questions helped initiate the long fashion for sneering at dead white men of ideas, and turned history from a means of understanding to a record of heroes and villains.

[Emphasis added]

Sneering at dead white men? The new social history of the 1960s (which indeed is now pretty old) was about assessing the contributions of people left out of traditional narratives. African Americans, women, labor got their stories told, sometimes for the first time. It was a revolution in perspective that has led to many of the most interesting and well-respected works in American historiography. Maybe Charles Beard sneered. Who else?

Lynd’s response to this review is similarly stupified by that line:

Toward which “dead white men of ideas” does Mr. Summers consider that I “sneered”? He sneers at me in a way that I do not recall ever denigrating any one, in print or otherwise.

I’m not sure I could ever be so classy if I ever got reviewed this way. [Lynd, however, is the subject rather than the author of the book. The author, Carl Mirra, is a bit more aggressive in his response to the review.]

The part about turning “history from a means of understanding to a record of heroes and villains” is perhaps even more appalling. If it took until the 1960s to make history the functional equivalent of a Hollywood western, does that mean that Edward Gibbon was completely objective? The reviewer is upset simply because Lynd’s heroes aren’t his heroes, those “dead white men of ideas.” Which, incidentally, is exactly why he never should have been allowed to review this book in the first place. He brings far too much baggage to the task.


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