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The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History

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The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History Cover

ISBN13: 9780143115045
ISBN10: 0143115049
Condition: Standard
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Synopses & Reviews

Publisher Comments:

Reflections on the historian's craft and its place in American culture, from a master craftsman 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. In The Purpose of the Past, historian Gordon S. Wood examines the sea change in the field through considerations of some of its most important historians and their works. His book serves as both a history of American history-neither wholly a celebration nor a critique-and an argument for its ongoing necessity. These are both the best of times and the worst of times for American history. New currents of thought have brought refreshing and vitally necessary changes to the discipline, expanding its compass to include previously underexamined and undervalued groups and subjects. At the same time, however, strains of extreme, even nihilistic, relativism have assaulted the relevance, even the legitimacy, of the historian's work. The divide between the work of academic and popular historians has widened into a chasm, separating some of the field's most important new ideas from what would give them much greater impact: any kind of real audience. But The Purpose of the Past is not another crotchety elegy for what history once was but sadly now isn't; it is also a celebration of what, at its best, it is, and a powerful argument for its ongoing necessity. Along the way The Purpose of the Past offers wonderful insight into what great historians do, and how they can stumble, and what strains of thoughthave dominated the marketplace of ideas in historical scholarship. A master historian's commanding assessment of his field, The Purpose of the Past will enlarge the capacity to appreciate history of anyone who reads it

Synopsis:

Wood examines how the historian's craft has changed radically over the past 40 years. This work offers insight into what great historians do, how they can stumble, and what strains of thought have dominated the marketplace of ideas in historical scholarship.

Synopsis:

An erudite scholar and an elegant writer, Gordon S. Wood has won both numerous awards and a broad readership since the 1969 publication of his widely acclaimed The Creation of the American Republic. With The Purpose of the Past, Wood has essentially created a history of American history, assessing the current state of history vis-à-vis the work of some of its most important scholars-doling out praise and scorn with equal measure. In this wise, passionate defense of history's ongoing necessity, Wood argues that we cannot make intelligent decisions about the future without understanding our past. Wood offers a master's insight into what history-at its best-can be and reflects on its evolving and essential role in our culture.

Synopsis:

An erudite scholar and an elegant writer, Gordon S. Wood has won both numerous awards and a broad readership since the 1969 publication of his widely acclaimed The Creation of the American Republic. With The Purpose of the Past, Wood has essentially created a history of American history, assessing the current state of history vis-

About the Author

Gordon S. Wood is the Alva O. Way University Professor of History at Brown University. A Pulitzer Prize winner, he is a regular contributor to The New Republic and The New York Review of Books.

Table of Contents

The Purpose of the Past Introduction

1. "Influence" in History

2. Anachronism in History

3. Narrative History

4. The Lessons of History

5. Continuity in History

6. History and the New Historicism

7. History as Fiction

8. History as High Politics

9. Microhistory

10. Truth in History

11. History Versus Political Theory

12. History Without Ideas

13. History and Heritage

14. Comparative History

15. Postmodern History

16. Satirical History

17. Multicultural History

18. History and Myth

19. History as Cultural Criticism

20. Race, Class, Gender and History Writing

21. Presentism in History

Index

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OneMansView, February 7, 2010 (view all comments by OneMansView)
What is legitimate history? (3.75 *s)

This is a collection of twenty-one reviews of historical books by Gordon Wood, distinguished colonial period historian, written over the last thirty years, previously appearing primarily in the New York Review of Books as well as in the New Republic and the William and Mary Quarterly. These reviews were selected from the many written by Wood to be instructive about his views on the proper approach to take in writing history. He is dismayed over the direction that history writing has taken over these last thirty years. Contrary to his style, historians are disinclined to write comprehensive, inclusive narrative history over a broad period that is readable by the educated public. The trend has been to write “scientific, monographic history” for fellow academics on a limited topic, focusing on a particular grouping. While that small-focus trend produces chaos in general historical understanding, it is legitimate unlike postmodernistic writing that regards truth as a particularly Western illusion. The only truth, in that view, is the exercise of power by hegemonic historical figures, though elaborately hidden. Superficial facts are largely a form of fiction. Wood also notes the insistence on promoting cultural diversity, emphasizing “identities and cultures of people in society,” which “increases fragmentation and disarray” in understanding the past.

In broad terms, many historical writers find it difficult to avoid presentism in their writing. That is, present-day political, economic, and social understandings or theories are misapplied to the past. Or the past is used to explain the present. Closely related is the concept of anachronistic distortion. Wood is especially troubled over introducing fiction into historical writing, that is, imagined conversations, thoughts, and actions. Ironically, he contends that historians can often provide perspectives that are not available to actual or imagined participants. In other words, such fictions undermine serious history. He also finds that non-historians such as sociologists or political scientists are prone to find in history that which supports their ideas, the error of which is compounded when they view themselves as historians.

Writing history is a subtle craft. Wood hardly denies the difficulties of capturing the past, but insists that any understandings be grounded in the context of the times, even accepting what appear to be the “blindness and folly” of the times. While history once focused on key events, figures, like generals and statesmen, and institutions, he is not at all dismissive of a trend towards writing social history, an area long neglected, though cultural history stretches that tolerance. While history cannot be directly translated into the present to explain or to set out a course of action, history can instill wisdom, humility, and skepticism, which may have their usefulness in the present.

Some of the interesting books and reviews:

James MacGregor Burns’ THE VINEYARD OF LIBERTY anachronistically attempts to inject a nationwide radical movement, consisting of recent immigrants, poor whites, Indians, and free blacks, into the pre-Civil War period, which only awaited a transcendent leader to lead that movement against an “elite monopolization of property and profits,” thereby avoiding the War. Clearly, there was no such nascent movement.

THE GLORIOUS CAUSE: THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION, 1763-1789, a volume in the distinguished Oxford History of the US, by Robert Middlekauff, is an example of a surface-level narrative that filters all activity of the period through a “glorious cause” paradigm, while giving short shrift to deep-seated forces and selecting, ignoring, or misinterpreting events as they do or do not support his theme. According to Wood, the book “plays into the hands of those who argue that historical narrative is just another form of fiction.”

Simon Schama’s DEAD CERTAINTIES is a self-proclaimed experiment in narration, but according to Wood is an example of history as fiction. The book includes imaginary first-person accounts of the Battle of Quebec in 1759, where General James Wolfe died, and a fictionalized account of the notorious murder of George Parkman in 1849 by a Harvard professor over an unpaid debt. Wood does not deny that history writing requires creativity, but fiction undermines the authenticity and credibility of a work of history.

In THE AGE OF FEDERALISM by Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, Wood is concerned in this grand narrative that the authors often are sidetracked by people and events that “are not just described, but analyzed, examined, turned over and over, …. , in astonishing detail,” at the expense of ignoring important events, both small and significant. Wood also notes their difficulty in understanding the thinking of the new Republican Party led by Jefferson and Madison. Nonetheless, the book gets fairly high marks from Wood, who acknowledges his debt to their work as he writes the Oxford volume that overlaps the Federalist period.

IF MEN WERE ANGELS: JAMES MADISON AND THE HEARTLESS EMPIRE OF REASON by Richard K. Matthews is, according to Wood, an example of a political theorist writing history who sees “the past simply as an anticipation of our present, and thus they tend to hold people in our past responsible for a future that was, in fact, inconceivable to them.” In this case Matthews’s attempts to convince that Madison was a prototype liberal “committed implicitly to the market principle of possessive individualism.” A more nuanced view, as per Wood, is that Madison was not dramatically different from Jefferson, an agrarian radical according to Matthews, which is also an overstatement.

Wood’s book has mixed appeal. The books reviewed are secondary to his agenda, not to mention, some are somewhat obscure and dated. Many of the reviews are themselves quite informative, but twenty-one reviews of early American history can get tedious, in addition to the frequent shifting of subjects. It is interesting to see criticism so vigorously applied to the works of fellow historians; that must make for interesting OAH meetings. Wood is a traditional historian. As to whether postmodernism has much to say about the past, this is not the book for a balanced opinion on that matter. For those interested in all of the titles of the books reviewed by Wood, the “search inside the covers” feature on this site shows the book titles in the index under the names of the three publications noted above. It probably takes a fairly highly motivated historical reader to appreciate this book.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780143115045
Author:
Wood, Gordon S
Publisher:
Penguin Books
Author:
Wood, Gordon S.
Subject:
Historiography
Subject:
United States - General
Subject:
World history -- Historiography.
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Mass Market
Publication Date:
20090231
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
from 12
Language:
English
Pages:
336
Dimensions:
8.30x5.40x.80 in. .60 lbs.
Age Level:
17-17

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Related Subjects

History and Social Science » US History » General
History and Social Science » Western Civilization » General
History and Social Science » Western Civilization » Historiography
History and Social Science » World History » Historiography
History and Social Science » World History » Western Civilization

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Product details 336 pages Penguin Books - English 9780143115045 Reviews:
"Synopsis" by , Wood examines how the historian's craft has changed radically over the past 40 years. This work offers insight into what great historians do, how they can stumble, and what strains of thought have dominated the marketplace of ideas in historical scholarship.
"Synopsis" by ,
An erudite scholar and an elegant writer, Gordon S. Wood has won both numerous awards and a broad readership since the 1969 publication of his widely acclaimed The Creation of the American Republic. With The Purpose of the Past, Wood has essentially created a history of American history, assessing the current state of history vis-à-vis the work of some of its most important scholars-doling out praise and scorn with equal measure. In this wise, passionate defense of history's ongoing necessity, Wood argues that we cannot make intelligent decisions about the future without understanding our past. Wood offers a master's insight into what history-at its best-can be and reflects on its evolving and essential role in our culture.

"Synopsis" by , An erudite scholar and an elegant writer, Gordon S. Wood has won both numerous awards and a broad readership since the 1969 publication of his widely acclaimed The Creation of the American Republic. With The Purpose of the Past, Wood has essentially created a history of American history, assessing the current state of history vis-
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