The Purpose of the Past; Reflections on the Uses of History, (2008)
by Gordon S. Wood
At last, a recognized authority calls for hostilities to cease between the pompous academics (deliberately writing for other professors bulked up with quantitative social science data and theory) and the trendy popularizers. For our generation, Wood is the prize-winning dean of American historiography. The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (1969) won the Bancroft Prize. The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1991) won the Pulitzer.
Collection of long-form praise and criticism of works by American historians published by Wood in NY Review of Books and New Republic, to each of which Wood has added an afterword, analyzing the significance of the subjects in hindsight, and reviewing his own reviews.
Wood seems to admire: Charles Royster, “The Fabulous History of the Dismal Swamp Company”; David Hackett Fischer, “Albion’s Seed”. He champions historians who have not earned advanced degrees but who communicate the story, such as David McCullough, Stacy Schiff, and Barbara W. Tuchman.
Wood is critical of those whose modern political views infect their work: Simon Schama, John Patrick Diggins, Richard K. Matthews. He is not as dismissive as other academics are of the “popularizers” such as Ron Chernow, Walter Isaacson and again, David McCullough.
Wood decries the academic “hyper-specialization” which turns off the public and deprives them of what would be a “sense of where we have come from and how we have become what we are”. The social science trend, for example, his brought historians closer to the sciences, but while enrollment in higher education was booming from 1970 through the 1980's, history majors declined by almost two-thirds.
As academic historians embraced theories of “deconstruction”, “textuality”, and “essentialism”, and incorporated compilations of quantitative data and technological tools of analysis, they communicated only to other tenured faculty. The university presses became obsessed with Derrida techniques and the structuralism of Michel Foucault. The academics lost the Story.
Ironically perhaps in light of the title and subtitle, Wood is critical of the attempt, especially by popularizers (Tuchman, McCullough), to make history “useful”. The Story is not for spinning. He seems to be an umpire of political shifts, calling ideologues out, but doing all he can to bring more people to the game.
- Did Socrates say "Know Thyself", or was he misunderstood, as all are. Show Thyself is all we can do. The knowing is unknowable. I am filled with joy. It can't be helped.
Became a Farmer, Builder, Musician, Tank Commander, Librarian, Lawyer and Minister. I have failed at many things. And now retired. Filled, just filled, with Joy.