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Jewish World Review July 3, 2001 / 12 Tamuz, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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Heroes, who needs 'em?

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- SEAN WILENTZ is unhappy. A professor of history at Princeton, he complains that Americans are reading too much history this Fourth of July. Or rather the wrong kind of history. Namely, not his.

Like every court historian, the professor resents it when the people are reading some unauthorized chronicle, and, worse, enjoying it.

These days Americans aren't just reading about the wrong heroes -- like crusty old John Adams, that, that ... Federalist! Far worse, we're searching for heroes and heroic qualities again. For character. For the kind of leader or dissenter or single individual who makes a difference -- who makes, well, history.

We're no longer settling for the kind of ideological concerns that the professor would put at the center of his vague, class-centric history. A revolution is going on in our reading habits, and Sean Wilentz is pretty darn disgusted about it. He and his kind could be dethroned.

Americans seem fascinated by our myths again and are going back to First Things instead of just taking up the latest thing. We the People are balking at the idea of history as just the present projected backward. We seem willing to enter into the spirit of the past as if we were traveling to a different country and living there -- rather than acting like the tourist who insists on carrying all his familiar comforts with him, especially the ideological ones.

It is all too much for a certain kind of bypassed historian. The professional hates to see the amateurs take over. They're dangerous. They are not intimidated by the textbooks so laboriously turned out by the bien pensant with tenure. How impertinent of us. Don't we realize that some questions are forever closed? Imagine anyone taking John Adams seriously at this late date!

Or as Professor Wilentz harrumphs, it is "one thing to be swept away by a major figure of one's own lifetime, and quite another to cast as an exemplary political figure a man who died one hundred and seventy-five years ago in another political age -- especially one whose connection to our own rambunctious democracy is as tenuous as Adams's.''

Tenuous. Our poor, present-bound professor writes as if the first Adams' time of monarchy/revolution/anarchy/liberty was less rambunctious than this tepid age. Yet the professor assumes that Mr. Adams has only a tenuous connection to our America -- the America that John Adams is shaping once again through his rediscovery by writers like David McCullough.

Sean Wilentz has clearly been lecturing to captive audiences too long. And he's appalled at what's been going on outside the classroom. How dare David McCullough write a best seller in praise of old John Adams? To quote the summary of Professor Wilentz's four-part philippic: "John Adams is not the hero we need, and David McCullough is not the historian we need.''

The professor's compendium of complaints appears in the guise of a book review in the current New Republic, which really ought to change its name to Old Rhetoric. Because it has become a repository for the remains of a conventional liberalism that America began revolting against circa 1980 and now mainly ignores. By now Liberal is no longer a bad word, only a dated one.

Professor Wilentz's book review is really a lament for that golden age when it wasn't just hard to buck the conventional gods of liberalism, it was useless. Back in the Sixties, to dare question any assumption of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s monocular history was to be marked as subversive. And actually to discover a factual error in his text not so much heretical as just irrelevant.

Because it was a time when facts didn't matter, only the uses to which they could be put. In that golden or at least brass age, History was seen as just this cupboard full of exquisite china that needed to be dashed -- or, better yet, thrown at Enemies of the People. Like John Adams.

But by now the people have lost interest in these academic games. As if they had minds of their own, and even books of their own to read.

Our professor is back in a time when historians understood that they were engaged in an ideological mission, and that their job was to ransack history looking for intellectual ammo. Yes, once upon a golden time, we could all see that Andrew Jackson was just an early New Dealer and character didn't matter. Whether it was the character of a Washington or a Benedict Arnold, of an Aaron Burr or a John Adams. Yes, when future historians study the Age of Clinton, they'll find Sean Wilentz's views on the irrelevance of character a good place to start their diagnosis.

Oh, for an era when history was impersonal and had a purpose as weighty and dense as academic prose! Those were the days when, to quote the professor, "Critical analysis was in the saddle (and) American history was meant to rattle its readers, not to confirm in them their received myths and platitudes about America.''

One suspects that what really bothers the professor is that it is his myths and platitudes that are no longer being received. Instead a new birth of freedom, or at least a new appreciation of it, is in vogue.

John Adams, that fussy old Puritan, refuses to die. Worse, Americans would rather read his correspondence with Jefferson, or with Abigail, or just a book about him, than sit through still another tirade by the Alan Dershowitzes and Sean Wilentzes. Contrary to clichi, it is not living well that is the best revenge but writing well -- as David McCullough well knows. He could be John Adams' amanuensis.

"Does Jefferson still live?'' Mr. Adams is famously said to have asked on his deathbed. Today it is our Jeffersonians who inquire, nervously, "Does Adams still live?''

The answer, a resounding Yes, makes our ideologues in historians' clothing even less secure in their assumptions -- though never so insecure as to examine them seriously. All they can do is grumble. But as Faulkner said of the past, John Adams isn't dead; he isn't even past.

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