Most people consider history to be a discipline of wizened scribblers, all quietly scratching away to produce a dusty tome called the Truth, with a capital T. But History —- capital H —- actually is more like a parliament of noisy debaters, all shouting over the din that their truth is more true than the last person's truth.
With his latest book, "The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Use of History," Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon S. Wood shows us that this ongoing discussion is what makes the discipline so endlessly fascinating. History isn't about multiple-choice questions; it's a running argument about our collective memory and what the past means to us now.
In his insightful collection of previously published essay-reviews, the Brown University professor attacks sloppy scholarship, political correctness and "presentism" —- judging past actors by modern morals and ideals. He argues for a renewed vigor in historical scholarship, one that methodically marshals evidence but does not forget to weave a compelling narrative for readers. Academic historians must remember that people actually are supposed to read what they produce.
"History is not a science; it is an art," Wood declares in a 1984 essay that defends the popular writer Barbara Tuchman against academic hostility. "History needs writers, or artists, who can communicate the past to readers. ..."
Wood contends that history's primary cultural purpose is to place our present tribulations in a greater context of the tumultuous story of human civilization.
"Realizing the extent to which people in the past struggled with circumstances that they scarcely understood is perhaps the most important insight flowing from historical study," he writes. "To understand the past in all its complexity is to acquire historical wisdom and humility and indeed a tragic sense of life. A tragic sense does not mean a sad or pessimistic sense of life; it means a sense of the limitations of life."
Wood is writing in this book not as a historian, but as a critic of historians. This is a collection of book reviews, many of them negative, that use the books as starting points for deeper discussions of the state of historiography. Wood presents historians as people who are as intelligent, venal, humble, proud, right and wrong as everyone else. They can get caught up with fads. They can be blinded by prejudices. They can miss important facts. Wood lets no one off the hook. He blasts historians who eschew storytelling. He embraces efforts to open up new fields of historical study, including gender and race research. He has no time, however, for lazy and simplistic works that impose "political correctness" on past players.
"In their well-intentioned but often crude efforts to make the past immediately usable, these scholars undermine the integrity and the pastness of the past," he writes of P.C. historians.
Much of the book focuses on early American history, which is Wood's field of expertise. But these essays go beyond that subject to explore what history is and why it matters.
"To be able to see the participants of the past in this 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," he writes.
Wood wants historians, and readers of history, to mine for a deeper understanding of the people who came before us. In doing so, he argues persuasively, we will arrive at a fuller knowledge of our present. There is no question human society today is awash in technological advances that have transformed everything. To assert that this dramatic change has included a moral transformation or an expansion of our intellect is an assertion that Wood, one of the nation's pre-eminent historians, shows to be highly suspect.
"The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Use of History" by Gordon S. Wood. Penquin. 323 pages. $25.95.
Bottom line: A fascinating look at why, and how, history matters.
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