Polarization is an old American story


He’s been called the “dean of 18th-century American historians,” but Gordon Wood’s biggest claim to fame is that Matt Damon once mentioned him in a movie. In a barroom scene from 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” a haughty Harvard grad student bloviates in a bid to impress two women. Mr. Damon’s character, a working-class prodigy, cuts him down to size: “Next year, you’re gonna be in here regurgitating Gordon Wood, talkin’ about, you know, the prerevolutionary utopia and the capital-forming effects of military mobilization.”

Mr. Wood says a student told him about the mention immediately after the film’s Cambridge, Mass., premiere. But he is fond of pointing out that he isn’t the historian Mr. Damon’s character most admires: “If you want to read a real history book, read Howard Zinn’s ‘People’s History of the United States,’ ” Mr. Damon says in another scene. “That book will really knock you on your ass.”

And the truth is that today the pompous grad student would be likelier to quote Zinn’s progressive indictment of America than Mr. Wood’s work. “I’m considered on the wrong side,” Mr. Wood, energetic and alert at 84, tells me over lunch at the faculty club of Brown University, where he is a professor emeritus. “American history is now a tale of oppression and woe. And if you don’t say that . . .” he trails off.