Sunday, September 23, 2007

Edmund Morgan, "The Genuine Article".

Plagued by the thought that I should withdraw from my ongoing study of serial killers, I decided to pick up Edmund Morgan's The Genuine Article. Morgan is a distinguished professor at Yale and a renowned historian specializing in early American history. This particular tome is a collection of book reviews he's written over the years for the New York Times Book Review. As I made my way through the first portion of the book, I wondered what had compelled me to pick it up in the first place. What self-respecting modern American bothers reading this type of stuff in the first place... let alone an entire collection of it? Perhaps I was feeling some strange sense of literary masochism? Regardless I resolved to make my way through it, even when I felt I could better spend my leisure time elsewhere.

As page after page turned, I developed a rhythm and began to see the merits of the endeavor. For despite the fact that I spend much of my life with similar material, I realized just how narrow my view is. No matter how critical we have become, many American citizens still labor under the suppositions that we formed in primary school. This tendency especially applies when we deal with stories of the "founding fathers". These are real-life historical figures- men who walked the earth and had many of the same compulsions and desires as everybody else. Yet we have made them into national symbols, vaguely representing one or another political ideal that they were famous for having expressed. Many of us tend to consider them as if they existed in a vacuum, or as if they popped out of their mothers' wombs ready to spout revolutionary platitudes. Obviously that approach doesn't accurately convey the complexity of their lives.

We also tend to think of historians as ultraconservative keepers of our historical legacy. It is too easy to believe that they know everything there is to know about the Revolutionary War era. We believe that early American history is static and ossified. What new discoveries could we possibly find in this distant segment of our past? Haven't academics agreed by now on the fundamental meanings and interpretations of this particular time period? Well, the fact is that nothing is set in stone. Historical analysis is influenced by the perspectives of the time in which it is written. If we are undergoing a period of social unrest, then that disorder is going to color the spectacles through which historians look backwards. If society is enjoying a time of stability and constancy, then our experts are going to reflect that in their writings. Ultimately the lessons we learn from studying early American history (or any time period, for that matter) are going to be just as much about us as whatever subject they claim to deal with. The observer can't help but affect the observed.

Edmund Morgan is well aware of the type of projection that occurs in any examination of history. He is also careful to take into consideration the context surrounding the primary sources. What one or another figure says in his own time is inflected by the events surrounding him. Naturally we impose our own frames and philosophies when we read them, these 200 (or so) years later. Morgan picks a wide variety of texts to review. Many of them are modern collections of the original papers of the founding fathers. In some cases, much of the included material has been recently rediscovered. In other places the stuff has never before been presented together. A true intellect can construct new associations and gain original insights from looking at the work as a whole. Morgan goes one step further and factors in the biases of the editors.

What's ultimately remarkable about The Genuine Article is the author's obvious attempts to remain evenhanded in his assessment of works of such disparate nature. He's quite clearly leery of drawing conclusions based upon demographic statistics, but he is not so brash as to simply discount them. Even when Morgan does not favor a particular viewpoint because it seems outlandish or fanciful, he seems inclined to give it due consideration. That doesn't mean that there is no piss and/or vinegar in his writing style- he often uses his vast store of wit to subtly jab at the authors he disagrees with. Yet it's evident how much Wilson enjoys his task, even when he is at extreme odds with an author's judgments. The palpable joy he displays in learning something fresh makes what could be an unbearable chore into an enlightening read.

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Anonymous jefg said...

Excellent review. Your comments and perspective on how times affect the perception of events, and how that follows it into the future, was enlightening.

7:34 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


Thanks for the feedback, and I'm glad you got something out of the post. I was afraid it would be too dry.

6:59 PM  

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