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Gordon Wood says his 15 minutes of fame came with “Good Will Hunting” (Interview)

Gordon S. Wood, a Brown University emeritus professor of history, has just completed a collection of 39 of the more significant pamphlets for the Library of America in the two-volume The American Revolution: Writings from the Pamphlet Debate 1764‒1776. Wood is the recipient of the Bancroft Prize for Creation of the American Republic, 1776–1787 (1969) and the Pulitzer Prize for History for The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992). We had a wide-ranging discussion about pamphlets, changes in the media environment, and the current state of historical writing, but we started with Wood’s cameo — or more accurately his name’s cameo — in the 1997 film Good Will Hunting.

SCOTT PORCH: Did you realize that when you Google your name, the first autocomplete is “gordon wood good will hunting”?

GORDON S. WOOD: [Laughs.] That’s my two seconds of fame! More kids know about that than any of the books I have written. 

I haven’t seen Good Will Hunting in a while. Does your name come up in the “how ’bout them apples” speech?

No, it’s when a Harvard student in a bar is sounding off on history and the Matt Damon character says he’s wrong and should read Gordon Wood and so on.

Did the producers call you, or did you find out about it when the movie came out?

I got an email from a former student of mine who had gone to the movie opening in Cambridge in, I think, 1997. That was my first knowledge of it. For the next year or two, every time I gave a talk somewhere, some student would raise his hand and ask a question about Good Will Hunting.

These two new books from Library of America are a collection of pamphlets published in the years before the American Revolution. Where did these pamphlets fit into media culture at the time?

Some of these pamphlets were originally published as a series of essays in newspapers. If you wanted to have a larger impact, you bundled the essays together and publish them as a book. The pamphlets were smaller than a major book.

Were they stitch bound like a book?

Right, the ones I’ve seen were bound. Books were much more expensive, so pamphlets were a major means of communication in those days. They were comparable, I guess, to blogging today. 

Did it fit the intellectual space of something like The Atlantic or a political magazine?

The audience for most of the pamphlets was fairly limited. If you read them, they’re at a high level of discussion. John Dickinson, for example, floods his pamphlets with all kinds of citations to Latin writers and to the culture of Western civilization. Ordinary people would not have read that. When you come to Thomas Paine, that’s very different. It’s the only one of the 39 that I included in the collection that really reaches out to a popular audience. 

That was Common Sense you’re talking about?

Right. It was a major breakthrough in the history of rhetoric. It appalled a lot of people that he wrote in what they thought was kind of a vulgar fashion. He has barnyard kinds of images, and this existed in a very elite culture. Publishing that was a major breakthrough. ...

Read entire article at Los Angeles Review of Books