History is to society what memory is to the individual: without it, we don't know who we are, and we can't make wise decisions about where we should be going. But while the nature of memory is a constant, the nature of history has changed radically over the past forty years, for good but also for ill. Historian Wood examines the sea change in the field, offers insight into what historians do, and how they can stumble. New currents of thought have brought refreshing changes to the discipline, expanding its compass to previously underexamined and undervalued groups and subjects. At the same time, however, extreme, even nihilistic, relativism has assaulted the relevance, even the legitimacy, of the historian's work, and the divide between academic and popular historians has widened into a chasm, separating some of the field's most important new ideas from any kind of real audience.--From publisher description.
Collection of long-form praise and criticism of works by American historians published by Wood in NY Review of Books and New Republic, to each of which Wood has added an afterword, analyzing the significance of the subjects in hindsight, and reviewing his own reviews.
Wood seems to admire: Charles Royster, “The Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company”; David Hackett Fischer, “Albion’s Seed”. He champions historians who have not earned advanced degrees but who communicate the story, such as David McCullough, Stacy Schiff, and Barbara W. Tuchman.
Wood is critical of those whose modern political views infect their work: Simon Schama, John Patrick Diggins, Richard K. Matthews. He is not as dismissive as other academics are of the “popularizers” such as Ron Chernow, Walter Isaacson and again, David McCullough.
Wood decries the academic “hyper-specialization” which turns off the public and deprives them of what would be a “sense of where we have come from and how we have become what we are”. The social science trend, for example, his brought historians closer to the sciences, but while enrollment in higher education was booming from 1970 through the 1980's, history majors declined by almost two-thirds.
As academic historians embraced theories of “deconstruction”, “textuality”, and “essentialism”, and incorporated compilations of quantitative data and technological tools of analysis, they communicated only to other tenured faculty. The university presses became obsessed with Derrida techniques and the structuralism of Michel Foucault. The academics lost the Story.
Ironically perhaps in light of the title and subtitle, Wood is critical of the attempt, especially by popularizers (Tuchman, McCullough), to make history “useful”. The Story is not for spinning. He seems to be an umpire of political shifts, calling ideologues out, but doing all he can to bring more people to the game.
A bigger problem is that Wood's view of what counts as history is pinched: he seems to view history strictly as the attempt to understand how things were, and how people at the time perceived them. Wood reflexively rejects the notion that a historian can deploy or test theories of how societies function; he views these as the domain of social science, strictly excluded from real historical analysis. This narrow way of doing history is one legitimate way, and I'd love to read some of Wood's own books. But it isn't the only way, and Wood could learn a lot -- and write richer book reviews -- if he'd open his mind to other approaches and extract the insights they offer. Wood has a special objection to postmodernism, but he manages to find something wrong with the approaches to history taken in most of the works he reviews. I suspect that, as a result of this dogmatism, this collection will age into obsolescence faster that it otherwise might.
The chief gain I found from the book -- and sadly I think it was incidental, not Wood's intent -- is that after years working in the field, Wood is steeped in the ways various interpretations of the Revolutionary era have been handed down and shaped by all the major historians of the period. Some of the lay of that landscape comes through in the background of the more recent reviews. I wish Wood had spent more time directly focused on that landscape; it would have made this a more useful collection.
Being uninitiated to literary criticism in the magazine length format as these essays are, I am unsure if his critiques of historical offerings from 1981 to 2006 is boilerplate. At any rate, I was impressed with the thoughtful and well reasoned criticism produced by Mr. Wood. As of late, I have come to purchase books based upon their title or author, foregoing any reading of reviews or dust jacket synopsis to expand my exposure to all points of view. Before I opened this book I was unaware it was a collection of book reviews. The Purpose of the Past was anything other than an At the Movies thumbs-up/thumbs-down encapsulation of what each book was detailing regarding American Revolutionary history.
I came to appreciate this book for three distinct features.
First, it offered reviews of books I will unlikely come across. His reviews were contributions to The New York Review of Books and The New Republic. As he explains in his introduction, these were penned for a non-academic audience in mind which leads me to my second observation regarding the benefit of this book: history lessons!
Secondly, it was a history book of the caliber Gordon S. Wood produces. When I realized this was an anthology of critical reviews my thoughts quickly lead me to discount this as a history book; I was wrong. To completely dismantle various authors' thesis which they mangled, got wrong, or used to rewrite history to achieve personal beliefs, Mr. Wood provides data and citations of his own work and others to dispute most of the books. He did enjoy, agree with and like a few of the books he reviewed, but for the most part he disagreed with either the goals of the author or the execution of reviewed books.
And lastly, it opened the world of sub-specialties within the historical writer's world. Like special practices physicians may choose, there are niches that academics favor. Mr. Wood clearly dislikes the closed-loop world of academia studies, and voices his disdain for the haughty monograph writing intended for other historians. In several earlier reviews he wrote his displeasure at reliance, almost as a proof of scholarship, of data and statistics needlessly filling up prose.
In the fourth essay, he is discussing Barbara W. Tuchman's offering. Wood writes: "She may not have a Ph.D., but she is as much of a pro as the professors are... She can communicate with a willing readership, which is more than the professors can do.... 'When you write for the public you have to be clear and you have to be interesting.'" He continues to list the "captive audience" academics have and equates this to not having to be marketable.
This passage of his lends credence to his accusation that graduate level history is too erudite to impress other academics; he forwards the idea that laymen are less interested in learning how many bushels of wheat were produced in a certain Pennsylvanian valley in 1692 or the annual income of a household in Virginian tidewaters, we want rip-roaring tales of war or evaluation of how politics shaped the Constitutional Convention.
In the same review he also elaborates on the different veins of history writing. "Unlike sociology or political science, history is a conservative discipline," he begins before explaining that unlike making assumptions of historical figures or events. When non-historians, or historians with ulterior motives, apply a 20/20 view of past events to explain present ideals, this no longer becomes a historical recount but becomes a vehicle for an agenda or reconstruction.
Contained in a reply to a letter from an author's book he reviewed (Richard K. Matthews; If Men Were Angels), he expounds upon his presumption. "Historians are as interested in the ideas and ideologies of the founders as political theorists like Matthews." To further clarify his point, he explains, "[h]istorians attempt to recover a past world as accurately as possible and try to show how that different world developed into our own." Conversely, political theorists work with an agenda in mind. "They are primarily interested in the present or future conditions of political life and see past ideas as merely the sources or seeds for present or future political thinking."
Finally, lamenting the change in the discipline of historical writing, Gordon Wood discusses The Americas in the Age of Revolution, 1750-1850 by Lester D. Langley as "comparative history." In later chapters he further reflects on Marxist influence and the attempt to document history through the lens of race, gender or class, eschewing "the dead white guy" paradigm. "For the most part, history is no longer designed to inculcate patriotism, build a national identity, and turn immigrants into citizens. Instead, many historians have begun to emphasizing racial, ethnic, and gender diversity, which has tended to dilute a unified sense of American identity." He does recognize that recent focus on less well-known figures has benefited the totality of America's historical knowledge, but to advance a political goal is detrimental to our identity.
What also is nice are the afterwords which accompany each review. Some are minimal and don't really offer any more insight, while others provide more reflection and occasional interaction with an unhappy author disagreeing with Wood's take on their book.