The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History
By Gordon S. Wood
The Penguin Press; 323 pages; $25.95
The past century has been thrilling for those interested in history but perhaps even more thrilling for those interested in historians. The profession in this country developed its first big fissures in 1913, when Charles Beard encouraged the Progressive School to jettison Founding Father fairy tales in favor of more disabused views of early America.
By the time Gordon S. Wood, one of the pre-eminent historians of the period, began his now almost 50-year career, the cracks had begun spider-webbing across the discipline, until no one knew for sure what writing history properly meant. The fashion for political and military studies ebbed, social history prospered for its moment, and during a honeymoon for number lovers it seemed that no book on the American Revolution was complete without, say, a statistical chart of squash yields.
One imagines, from Wood’s new collection of essays, “The Purpose of the Past,” that the brittleness of his profession has brought him more joy than dismay, although it has certainly provoked that as well. During a lifetime spanning the messiest but most fertile epoch in American historical writing, Wood has written more than a dozen pages on American history for every one on American historians. His talents at writing history are well attested; this anthology reveals that he has written historiography with the same grace and gusto.
“The Purpose of the Past” gathers many of Wood’s writings on the historian’s craft. Its reviews, written during the past 25 years, showcase the vices and virtues of several schools of historical writing as they came into style with major works, from Garry Wills’ “Explaining America” (1981) to Robin L. Einhorn’s “American Taxation, American Slavery” just last year. An afterword of a couple of paragraphs or pages updates Wood’s assessment of each work.
Wood happily accepts the merits of nearly all the types of history exhibited in this volume, though he finds flaw in many elements of the execution. The most important role of the historian, he says, is to explain “how people in the past moved chronologically from A to B, with B always closer to us in time,” and that broad mandate embraces not only social history but also the insights of political science and literary theory. Wood comes not to condemn his colleagues, except perhaps those who reject outright the distinction between fact and fiction – a distinction blurred by the work of Hayden White in the 1970s, and by many sloppier scholars since.
Wood’s disapproval, when it comes, can be fierce. He torpedoes Simon Schama’s “Dead Certainties” (1991) for pointlessly interspersing a factual narrative with fictional monologues by characters from the period. But Wood’s judgment is not always borne out by historians’ consensus. Panned by Wood at the time for being epistemologically naive, “The Glorious Cause” (1982), Berkeley historian Robert Middlekauff’s history of the American Revolution, survives in its second edition today, and after 25 years remains one of the great works of American narrative history. (In an afterword to that review, Wood backs off slightly.)
More often, though, Wood shows himself to be an uncommonly charitable critic, eager to praise even the work of historians whose methods clash with his own. Wood’s history has focused on broad intellectual currents and major actors, but he relishes Paul E. Johnson and Sean Wilentz’s bizarre tale of 19th century cult leader Robert Matthews, an unkempt zealot and indisputably minor figure. And although Wood writes only in the clearest prose, he is patient enough with poorly written histories to debride away the jargon and praise only the living tissue of historical thought that remains.
Whether Wood judges works soundly is less the point of this volume, though, than the broader question of history’s function, in a time when its goals and methods have confused even its own practitioners. His answer, written as an introduction, is vague but stirring. History should inculcate a “historical sense,” an understanding of how one is forever caught in the rough winds of history, which limit and undermine one’s view of past, future and present alike. This suggestion does little to resolve the battles among historical schools, or to adjudicate whether political history is the bourgeois scam its opponents allege it to be. But it serves well as the opening to a collection cobbled together from three decades, as this is.
All but one of the reviews appeared in popular journals, chiefly the New York Review of Books and the New Republic, and all feature those magazines’ brainy yet accessible tone. Wood’s previous book, “Revolutionary Characters” (2006) also started piecemeal. His next book, however, will be another brick of a book, the Oxford History of the America’s fourth volume, covering the period from the end of Middlekauff’s book to 1815, the start of Daniel Walker Howe’s Volume 5, “What Hath God Wrought” (2007). For all the virtues of Wood’s present collection, it remains essentially a series of historiographical canapes rather than the grand narrative feast one desires and expects, after Wood’s treatment of “The Glorious Cause” here.
Graeme Wood is a staff editor at the Atlantic Monthly.