U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Guest Review: Fustian Vanderwald on Barrance Bancroft “America: Her Past, Long Ago, And What Happened in America Before Now”

(Note: this is a guest review by Fustian Vanderwald, Distinguished Professor of History at, in his words, “a certain college in Boston” (wink emoji).” We are grateful for Dr. Vanderwald sending us this review, though we would remind him that you cannot just type “wink emoji” and expect one to appear)

***

Barrance Bancroft, America: Her Past, Long Ago, And What Happened in America Before Now. 2014.

Sulking like a Beckettian antihero in the dustbin of history––my more idiotic readers may prefer the analogy to the puppet Oscar the Grump––we find Barrance Bancroft. Bancroft has yet to feature on a commemorative stamp (a fact that irks Bancroft’s friends, among whom number a statistically unlikely number of philatelists). True, he has achieved extraordinary professional success and enjoyed a long distinguished stint as Professor of History at Harvard. But because formal conventions demand that I start a review such as this with a rant about the underserved obscurity of its subject, I am going to have to just stick with this conceit. Today, Barrance Bancroft spends his days sobbing quietly in a Hammacher Schlemmer massage chair––all but the Shiatsu settings are broken––pointing a fist at the ceiling and wondering why America does not love him enough.

Bancroft’s new book is comprised of nine essays, two reviews, and an appendix of uncompleted limericks. He announces his ambit as “The character of history as words about the past, and sometimes reflection upon sentences, in regard to history or insofar as words are historical.” In a particularly beautiful passage, he writes: “One is reminded of the refrigerator, and its light: the way a carton of milk or lone head of broccoli is illuminated by its luminosity, and so on; likewise, with history, it is best that when we open the door a light turns on and we can see things, rather than not see them.” Here, Bancroft is describing the historian Melvin Ferrari. More accurately, he is describing Ferrari’s refrigerator. But the story could just as easily be told about Bancroft himself. He shines a light on the broccoli.

When I began taking classes with Bancroft, my sense of the colonial period was redolent with clichés. I imagined, mostly, tricorner hats, fifes and drums, and lots of grunting combat between men in furs and saber-tooth tigers. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely clear on the difference between colonial history and Tarzan. Moreover, I wasn’t sure I cared. Bancroft taught me that, indeed, one should care about this distinction. One should care a lot.

How good is Bancroft? Very good. In my mind, I like to think about the goodness of writing as comprising four dimensions: excellence, quality, likeability, and an “x” factor that I call “terrific-ness.” His new book hits all these marks. It is excellent. Its quality is sky high. Likeable? Try loveable. And it is, verily, terrific.

A universally acknowledged measure of academic seriousness is the Pulitzer Prize, and believe me, Bancroft has won a lot of them. Yet his most recent books have, at the same time, paradoxically, been shunned by academics. This might be explained by the fact that most academics think the Pulitzer Prize is meaningless.

But the failure of historians to get excited about Bancroft’s books speaks to a more serious malaise in the profession. This cold shoulder is surely the result of (wait, a minute here, I’ve got to remember is it C then V or the other way around, hang on) soul-killing moral relativism, feminism, moralizing and fashionable nonsense, and in conclusion Janet Jackson should have performed in a sensible suit from St. John, as I wrote to the National Football Commissioner lo these many years ago.

History, we recall, is a mode of inquiry conducted by men in bowties as they disinterestedly survey the vast accomplishments of mankind, while balancing commitments to crafting penal codes for Indian subjects, crushing proletarian revolts in France, or rationalizing their holdings of human beings as chattels. In recent decades, it has become difficult to pass on this tradition to students who think that writing history is political! I don’t know if you have ever seen a lone tear drop bounce off the lapel of a bespoke tweed jacket, but let me tell you: it is hell. Martinizing, you say. Yes. Martinizing has astonishing powers. But there are some things that cannot be Martinized.

Bancroft recognized this sickness when he commenced his career 95 years ago, but today the problem has metastasized. Students are obsessed with “inequality,” which has never provided an iota of inspiration for historical action. “White privilege” becomes a shibboleth in a moment wherein—and I shudder as I write this––we still lack a federal White History Month. Since all the old history books disappeared in the great Deconstructionist purges of the 1990s, today if we want to know anything about Patrick Henry or Besty Ross, we now have to read books by non-academics. It is like the story of the starving man, searching for a bit of filet mignon and a Bordeaux (maybe a 1985 I’m not picky), forced to go to Guy Fieri’s Johnny Garlic restaurant and eat something smothered in “donkey sauce.” No. Not in my America. Not on my watch. I don’t want your “donkey sauce.” I don’t want your “donkey sauce.”

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. If you’re going to the at the OAH, I hope you’ll let me buy you a beer as partial payment for an excellent laugh. If we do meet up, I promise to tell you stories about the young(er) Gordon Wood.

  2. Thank you, Professor Vanderwald. Your incredibly perceptive essay made my day! Your writing ability has been an inspiration to me, and I think your final paragraph will go down as one of your finest moments. I hope that you may grace this site again in the future.

  3. The good professor wishes me to pass on these words: “Thank you for the gracious praise, and I would be happy to meet with you following a review of your CVs and two letters of praise from men with Protestant surnames. Be forewarned: I will cancel our meeting if I see a Windsor knot or cuffed pant, and I wish to speak only about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the sexual attractiveness of the bar staff.”

    • Point of order, sir: I am assuming you are requesting that applicants have Protestant surnames as both their Christian and family names, rather than merely the latter. Or are you willing to meet with any old Tom, Dick, or Harry?

  4. I come here somewhat late in the day on Wednesday 2.18, after wasting a rather unconscionable amt of time at Crooked Timber, and I discover, after a bit of clicking, that Gordon Wood has written something in The Weekly Standard that has stirred up a fuss. I guess I will get around to reading it at some pt (Wood’s piece, that is), but I always thought of Wood, from a vantage point of admittedly near-total ignorance of his oeuvre, as a sort of progressive. Ah, the pleasures of being an ignorant non-historian!

    Since Dr. Vanderwald writes such compelling prose, might I inquire about whether certain of his lectures at that “certain college in Boston (wink emoji)” (or is it Cambridge?) might be available online?

Comments are closed.