Synopses & Reviews
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 thought have 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
"The subtitle of this latest offering from Pulitzer Prize winning historian Wood (The Radicalism of the American Revolution) is far grander than what he delivers between the covers: a collection of 21 book reviews of works by Simon Schama, Theodore Draper and Joyce Appleby, among others, written over the past three decades for periodicals like the New York Review of Books and the New Republic. Though reviews are occasional pieces not designed to be republished years later, some of Wood's pieces make enduring points. He lambastes scholars who clutter their writing with unintelligible jargon, and he worries that today's historical scholarship, too driven by present concerns, fails to retain a sense of how the past really is different. He makes clear that he prefers old-fashioned political history to cultural history that draws on postmodern theory. Indeed, the book is maddeningly repetitive: Wood invokes Peter Novick's This Noble Dream over and over, though not as often as he laments the use of theory in cultural history and the 'radical Foucault-like agendas' that seem to drive certain literary historians. This volume is not without merit, but rather than appending a short afterword to each review, Wood would have done better to craft a new, unified reflection on the discipline of history." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
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.
About the Author
Gordon S. Wood is the Alva O. Way University Professor and professor of history at Brown University. His 1969 book, The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787, received the Bancroft and John H. Dunning prizes and was nominated for the National Book Award. His 1992 book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, won the Pulitzer Prize and the Emerson Prize. Wood contributes regularly 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
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