Historians and the Past
Gordon S. Wood’s The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History (New York: Penguin Press, 2008) conveniently assembles a collection of this historian’s review essays written over the past quarter of a century. In this volume are reviews of books by Garry Wills, James MacGregor Burns, Robert Middlekauff, Barbara Tuchman, David Hackett Fischer, Michael Warner, Simon Schama, Stanley Elkins and Eric Mckitrick, Paul Johnson and Sean Wilentz, Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Richard K. Matthews, Theodore Draper, Pauline Maier, Lester D. Langley, Jill Lepore, Charles Royster, Jon Butler, John Patrick Diggins, Gary Nash, Lawrence Goldstein, and Robin L. Einhorn. These reviews, written for the broader public rather than specialized historians, cover all aspects of the American past and contend with many scholarly and contested issues of how we develop a “historical sense.” Reading through the collections provides an opportunity to see evolving debates about historical research and research methodologies. There are interesting comments about contentious issues, such as postmodernism, where Wood declares, “postmodern history is meditative and self-reflective history. It often tells us more about the historian than the events he or she is presumably recounting” (p. 226).
As one would expect, Wood makes reference to the importance and nature of historical documentation, considering the ways in which some recent historians have given up on notions of historical truth, objectivity, or the prospects of reconstructing or even understanding the past. At one point, Wood muses, “One can accept the view that the historical record is fragmentary and incomplete, that recovery of the past is partial and difficult, and that historians will never finally agree in their interpretations, and yet can still believe intelligibly and not naively in an objective truth about the past that can be observed and empirically verified” (p. 108). There is a lot here to generate thinking about how historians approach their craft, presented in an entertaining and provocative fashion.