Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Book Review: "Sometimes an Art"

Much of the discussion I've seen so far about Bernard Bailyn's new collection, Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History (Knopf, 2015) has centered around Gordon Wood's Weekly Standard review of the book, "History in Context." I read that, and much of the ensuing discussion, and I wanted all the more to read Bailyn's essays themselves.

Of the nine pieces collected here, eight began as lectures, a point I think worth emphasizing, as is the fact that they range in delivery date from 1954 to 2007. Bailyn notes in the preface that the connecting threads between the essays are these: "the problems and nature of history as a craft, at times an art, and aspects of the history of the colonial peripheries of the early British empire" (ix). Certainly a key sub-thread, if you will, is the importance of historical context, which comes up repeatedly, and in several of the essays Bailyn focuses on the use of new historical methodologies (some of which at this point seem anything but), which he embraces but with the caveat that "we must all still be storytellers, narrators—though of events lodged deep in their natural contexts" (52).

Bailyn recognizes what some see as a difficulty: "to explain contextually is, implicitly at least, to excuse" (38). "The problems in this kind of [contextual] history, in my view the deepest history, are difficulty and subtle, and they create great demands on historians: to suspend their present commitments sufficiently to enter different worlds, to broaden their sympathies for people not only distant but alien from themselves, to respond sensitively to apparent anomalies that lead into unsuspected complexities, to distinguish consequences from intentions, and yet to do all that while retaining both the capacity for moral judgments that do not warp the narrative and the conviction that change, growth, decline—evanescence—is what history is all about" (51).

Context is key, and Bailyn, several of whose own books have been—justly—criticized for failing to fully explore the contexts of their narrative arguments, writes strongly in its favor here. He also argues, in the opening essay (originally delivered at a conference to mark the launch of the DuBois Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database) for the importance of history and memory as complementary forces, which I quite like: "The one may usefully constrain and yet vivify the other. The passionate, timeless memory of the slave trade that tears at our conscience and shocks our sense of decency may be shaped, focused, and informed by the critical history we write, while the history we so carefully compose may be kept alive, made vivid and constantly relevant and urgent, by the living memory we have of it. We cannot afford to lose or diminish either if we are to understand who we are and how we got to be the way we are" (17).

In the fourth essay, the 1985 Lewin Lecture Bailyn highlights several historians whose work he found particularly creative, who had what he calls the "capacity to conceive of a hitherto unglimpsed world, or of a world only vaguely or imperfectly seen before" (89). While any of us would come up with a different list, it is difficult to take issue with Bailyn's formulation that writers of creative history must have "the capacity to project, like a novelist, a nonexistent, an impalpable world in all its living comprehension, and yet to do this within the constraints of verifiable facts" (94).

While a couple of these essays weren't of all that much personal interest, the sixth, delivered as the Baron Lecture at AAS, proved fascinating. Bailyn used the opportunity to revisit his book The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson, re-evaluating the work more than thirty years on. Here he even calls himself out, wishing that he had embraced and understood a broader context more clearly so that he might have better understood Hutchinson's actions.

By and large, these pieces do make for very interesting reading, and they have little at all to do with the topics covered in Wood's review, which mostly focuses on criticisms of Bailyn's other works. The object lessons Bailyn offers in the importance of understanding context, the desirability of good storytelling, and the complementarity of history and memory, &c., are hardly anything anyone would take issue with. That said, I do wish that a bit more had been done by way of introducing these essays in their own proper contexts, and in engaging with subsequent scholarship and argument in the areas covered: there is some of this at the end of the notes for certain essays, but more would not have gone amiss, and it would be fascinating to know what Bailyn thinks of the changes in scholarship that have occurred since these essays were originally delivered.

Well worth a read for anyone interested in the historian's craft, even granting that some of these seem rather dated now and may not seem quite as relevant as others.

No comments: