THE PURPOSE OF THE PAST: REFLECTIONS ON THE USES OF HISTORY By Gordon S. Wood, Penguin Press, $25.95, 323 pages Few academic fields have experienced as much tumult in recent years as has history. In addition to the battles between left and right, you have political historians wrangling with social historians, traditionalists vs. revisionists, just to name a few.
It sometimes seems that it takes a doctorate in the subject — or at the very least the time to read even a smattering of the plethora of books produced annually — to make sense of it all.
Fortunately, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon S. Wood has produced a work that can serve as a kind of one-stop shopping for those wanting to navigate recent historiography. In “The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History,” Mr. Wood critiques and analyzes many of the important books of the past 25 years, with a special emphasis on works about the Revolutionary era. It is a collection of his review essays from publications such as the New Republic and the New York Review of Books.
His thoughts on the views expressed in the books he is reviewing are insightful and rigorously argued. Fortunately, his writings lack the stridency of some modern scholarship. Many readers will be just as interested in his views of the best ways to approach to writing about and analyzing the past.
Mr. Wood, a professor at Brown University, is especially hostile towards historians who use their work either to make a political statement about today or use modern-day values when evaluating the past. Although he is generally classified as a conservative and is clearly a strong foe of political correctness, that does not prevent him from criticizing those on the right who don’t practice historical analysis as he sees fit.
He rightly criticizes John Patrick Diggins, a liberal-turned-conservative, for use of history not to enlighten readers about the past but instead to advance a philosophy.
“Since Diggins is not really a historian, he does not have a historian’s feel for the complexity, the nuances, the contexts, and the differentness of the past. He thinks of history as a social scientist might think of it: as a source for generalizations about human behavior that transcend time and place,” Mr. Wood writes of Mr. Diggins’ 2000 book “On Hallowed Ground: Abraham Lincoln and the Foundations of American History.”
He is equally hard on liberal scholars such as James MacGregor Burns, whom he describes as “a political activist for whom writing history is really politics by other means.”
Mr. Wood, whose own work has given him a strong fan base among scholarly and general audiences, takes an approach to writing history that runs against the tide of much of the scholarship coming out of the academy. More and more, professors on both sides of the ideological divide are rewarded for making philosophical points rather than enlightening readers about the past. By contrast, while he is opinionated about his specialty he is evenhanded.
While Mr. Wood’s writings are accessible to general audiences, he parts company with many popular historians who try to study the past as a way to learn lessons about the present. He takes issue with Barbara Tuchman’s contention that follies are a constant in history and that if studied right they can be, in modern parlance, teachable moments.
“History does not teach lots of little lessons. Insofar as it teaches any lessons, it only teaches one big one: that nothing ever works out quite the way its managers intended or expected,” he writes. ”
Mr. Wood, however, admires the ability of Ms. Tuchman, David McCullough and other non-academics to write engaging narratives that make history appealing to a broader audience.
Fortunately, Mr. Wood has a similar talent. That ability, combined with a remarkable felicity for presenting complex ideas in an approachable manner, make “The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History” a welcome addition to the book shelf of any history buff.
Claude R. Marx is an award-winning journalist and author of a chapter on media and politics in The Sixth-Year Itch, edited by Larry Sabato.