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Jonathan Yardley
A sage historian laments the "present-mindedness" of many of his colleagues.

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, March 16, 2008

THE PURPOSE OF THE PAST

Reflections on the Uses of History

By Gordon S. Wood

Penguin Press. 323 pp. $25.95

A quarter century ago Gordon S. Wood, professor of history at Brown University, stepped out of the academic cloister and began writing book reviews -- essays, really, running to around 4,000 words apiece -- for serious but non-academic publications, chiefly the New York Review of Books and the New Republic. No doubt he did so in hopes of reaching a wider readership than previously afforded him by academic journals, but he also did so out of a conviction that too many historians at American universities were drifting off into a hothouse where they talked and wrote only to each other, concentrating on theory and the holy trinity of race, class and gender.

Though not without sympathy for some of these developments, Wood was concerned about their larger implications. As he says in his introduction to this collection of 21 essays: "The result of all this postmodern history, with its talk of 'deconstruction,' 'decentering,' 'textuality,' and 'essentialism,' has been to make academic history writing almost as esoteric and inward directed as the writing of literary scholars. This is too bad, since history is an endeavor that needs a wide readership to justify itself." As watchers of the bestseller lists are well aware, "popular historians who have no academic appointment, such as David McCullough, Walter Isaacson, Ron Chernow, Thomas Fleming, and Stacy Schiff, have successfully moved in to fill the void left by the academic historians preoccupied by issues of race, gender, and multiculturalism."

Unlike many, if not most, of his colleagues in the history departments, Wood does not look down his nose at these writers: "I had great respect for Barbara Tuchman and have even greater respect for her successor as the premier popular historian of the country, David McCullough." Instead, he welcomes their work, not merely on its merits -- which of course vary widely from writer to writer and book to book -- but as an antidote to the narrow and often heavily ideological history that comes out of the universities, more often than not in "the special language that literary critics now use to separate themselves from the power structure as well as the common herd of us ordinary readers: 'interpellation,' 'exfoliation,' 'ambiguation,' 'valorized,' 'intellection,' 'narrativized,' and 'meta' this and 'meta' that."

The essays in this book, though written as book reviews with all the potential for evanescence that this literary/journalistic form entails, emerge in The Purpose of the Past as an account and a critique of "what has gone on in American history writing over the past twenty-five years, at least as it is represented by some of the books that I reviewed"; they also "reveal my own varied responses to what has happened to historiography during this tumultuous period."

The tumult began with the wave of intense political feeling that swept through liberal arts departments in the 1960s and has been churning things ever since. Wood, who is now in his mid-70s, is old enough to have been trained as a historian in less rancorous times and fortunate enough to have come under the influence in graduate school at Harvard of Bernard Bailyn, "the most inspiring of historians," to whom the book is dedicated. But he has also been on campus as a professor during this period of change, a first-hand witness who somehow has maintained an open mind and a sense of fairness.

Of all the fashions discussed in these essays, the one that gets the most attention goes by the rather clumsy name of "presentism": allowing "modern sensibilities" to color and often to control our view of the past. It is proper, as Wood says, that "the problems and issues of the present should be the stimulus for our forays into the past," since "it is natural for us to want to discover the sources, the origins, of our present circumstances."

But the present "should not be the criterion for what we find in the past. Our perceptions and explanations of the past should not be directly shaped by the issues and problems of our own time. The best and most serious historians have come to know that, even when their original impulse to write history came from a pressing present problem. . . .To be able to see the participants of the past in [a] comprehensive way, to see them in the context of their own time, to describe their blindness and folly with sympathy, to recognize the extent to which they were caught up in changing circumstances over which they had little control, and to realize the degree to which they created results they never intended -- to know all this about the past and to be able to relate it without anachronistic distortion to our present is what is meant by having a historical sense."

Thus, while Woods writes admiringly of the "magnanimous temperament" of James MacGregor Burns, he laments the "extraordinary present-minded and hence depressing picture of antebellum society that Burns has drawn" in The Vineyard of Liberty; Burns, he says, "is a political activist for whom writing history is really politics by other means." He also writes admiringly about Jill Lepore, but finds in her history of King Philip's War, The Name of War, the same tendency to see the past in terms dictated by the present, in this case "modern racial terms" that blind her to the inescapable truth that the late 17th century "was a cruel and brutal age, and human life was a great deal cheaper than it is for us today." Jon Butler's "otherwise excellent book," Becoming America, "is ultimately marred by the present-mindedness of its author." As for two recent books about slavery:

"I suppose the most flagrant examples of present-mindedness in history writing come from trying to inject politics into history books. I am reminded of Rebecca West's wise observation that when politics comes in the door, truth flies out the window. Historians who want to influence politics with their history writing have missed the point of the craft; they ought to run for office."

Wood's own view of "the point of the craft" is at once far more modest and vastly deeper than that of the ideologues who play so large a role today. Historians, he writes, "seek to study past events not to make transhistorical generalizations about human behavior but to understand those events as they actually were, in all their peculiar contexts and circumstances." In an especially penetrating review of Barbara Tuchman's The March of Folly, a resolutely presentist and political book, he writes: "History does not teach lots of little lessons. Insofar as it teaches any lessons, it teaches only one big one: that nothing ever works out quite the way its managers intended or expected. History is like experience and old age: wisdom is what one learns from it." Once again, he must be quoted at length:

"Unlike sociology or political science, history is a conservative discipline -- conservative, of course, not in any contemporary political sense but in the larger sense of inculcating skepticism about people's ability to manipulate and control purposefully their own destinies. By showing that the best-laid plans of people usually go awry, the study of history tends to dampen youthful enthusiasm and to restrain the can-do, the conquer-the-future spirit that many people have. Historical knowledge takes people off a roller coaster of illusions and disillusions; it levels off emotions and gives people a perspective on what is possible and, more often, what is not possible. By this definition Americans have had almost no historical sense whatsoever; indeed, such a sense seems almost un-American."

Those are not words calculated to comfort either ordinary Americans or professional historians, but they are true. Not so long ago American students were taught history "to inculcate patriotism, build a national identity, and turn immigrants into citizens" -- to encourage them to think of their country as exceptional, to think of it "not just as different but as specially or providentially blessed, as somehow free from the larger tendencies of history and the common fate of nations." Fewer people, historians especially, believe this now. But at least it was a reason to study history and grant the past some respect. Now most Americans are blissfully ignorant of history, and too many historians are interested in it primarily as a mechanism for promoting their own views and special interests.

Against these unpleasant contemporary realities, The Purpose of the Past is a beacon of common sense, sanity and wisdom. It is rare indeed when a collection of mere book reviews can stand alone as a unified and coherent book, but that is just what this one is. Handsomely written, deeply informed and resolutely fair-minded, it is essential reading for anyone who cares about history and the uses and abuses to which we subject it. *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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