Sunday, April 27, 2008

Book Review: "The Purpose of the Past"

This volume, The Purpose of the Past: Reflections of the Uses of History (Penguin, 2008) collects twenty-one of Gordon S. Wood's essay-length book reviews, written over the past two and a half decades for the New York Review of Books, The New Republic, The Atlantic and other publications. With these essays Wood, one of America's most critically-acclaimed academic historians, offers little less than a thorough review of recent historical scholarship, with enhancements in the form of a thoughtful introduction and short afterwords appended to each essay.

One of the threads running through these selections is Wood's discomfort with the intrusion of literary theory into historical writing. He declares bluntly that "the epistemological skepticism and blurring of genres that seem to have made sense for some literary scholars had devastating implications for historians .... 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" (4-6).

I couldn't agree more with this view - I share Wood's intense dislike for historical writing so filled with jargony gobbledygook that whatever narrative might be lurking within is utterly obscured by language which means absolutely nothing to anyone not in tune with the babble of befuddling banality unleashed on society by the theoreticians. I also happen to agree with Wood on another of his major points (that history "may not teach us particular lessons, but it does tell us how we might live in the world", that a historical sense "will give us the best guide we'll ever have for groping our way into an unpredictable future").

Wood is nothing if not very a careful historian, and many of the reviews included here offer cautionary notes for would-be writers of history. He argues against the practice of offering exaggerated claims of how x influenced y ("in most cases tracing the source of broadly shared ideas is a fool's errand" - 29); urges historians to be conscious of - and quite wary of - inserting anachronism and/or presentism into their writing; and suggests that historical writing should be seen as less a vehicle for imparting lessons than the opportunity to explain, to tell a story.

There weren't all that many things said in Wood's reviews that I found myself in strong disagreement with, one important exception being his 1991 NYRB review of Simon Schama's Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations). In this very non-traditional book, which the author himself described as something of an experiment, Schama inserted fictional musings and "novelistic devices" into his narrative: Wood was profoundly disturbed by this, and both in his review and in the afterword to it printed here decries the "devastating effects such a work by a distinguished historian could have on the conventions of the discipline" (109). Since I feel myself completely capable of distinguishing between fiction and non-fiction (and perhaps because I do like a bit of historical fiction if it's written well), I had no problem with Schama's experimentation in Dead Certainties, and wouldn't mind reading more of it (I do agree, however, with Wood's criticism about the book being classified as history by the Library of Congress and not fiction - that is problematic).

When my copy of The Purpose of the Past arrived, I immediately opened to the last review to see if it was the one I hoped it would be: Wood's 28 June 2007 NYRB review of two recent books (Lawrence Goldstone's Dark Bargain and Robin Einhorn's American Taxation, American Slavery). I had reviewed Goldstone's book almost a year earlier, and was pleased to see many of my own criticisms echoed by Wood (who offered what I think was a very fair and even-handed treatment of a truly misguided book). Goldstone's vituperative response to Wood's review is a prime example of how not to react to criticism: he suggests that Wood "dismisses" his work as that of an amateur, when (as Wood replied) Goldstone's lack of "academic appointment" has nothing whatever to do with the failings of Dark Bargain.

Writers and readers of American historical scholarship will find Wood's essays enlightening, clearly-written, and at time provocative. I recommend them highly.

1 comment:

urbanadder22 said...

Thank you for this most enlightening review.