The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History

When a writer sets out to publish a collection of his or her essays and reviews, the finished product all too often shows traces of the author’s unsuccessful struggle to create a unifying theme for disparate and unwieldy material. But Gordon S. Wood, the eminent historian of 18th-century America, has not had to make any such effort, for this collection of his long reviews (most of which initially appeared in The New York Review of Books) serves as a neat anatomy of the changes intellectual fashion has imposed on his discipline over the past 25 years, and a commentary upon the process of writing history that is both sensible and sensitive — and sometimes impassioned, as well.

As Wood points out, historiography has undergone a revolution since the 1960s. At that time the traditional study of history “from above” — the narration and analysis of diplomatic and political events, largely the handiwork of “great men” — began to give way to a surge of interest in history from below, as historians delved into the lives of hitherto marginalized people such as women, peasants, and slaves. Scholars turned from straightforward narrative to a historiography informed by social sciences like anthropology and ethnography; in the 1980s the focus shifted once again to what is now known as “cultural history,” with a strong emphasis on race, class and gender. “By now,” Wood says, “little else seems to matter?. History departments appear to have stopped hiring anyone but cultural historians, the assumption being that cultural history is the only kind of history worth doing.”

Intensifying the situation was the fact that historians, following sheep-like in the errant footsteps of literary critics, became increasingly besotted with theory. “Implicit in many of these theories, which tended to emphasize the textual construction of reality, was an epistemological skepticism” that has had, Wood claims, “devastating implications for historians,?undermining the ground for any sort of historical reconstruction at all.” Postmodernist scholars launched an attack on the entire Enlightenment project, claiming that “truth,” whether historical or scientific, is nothing but an ideological construct.

Of course historical skepticism was hardly invented by postmodern theorists; as early as the fifth century B.C., Herodotus was dryly observing of his craft, “Very few things happen at the right time and the rest do not happen at all. The conscientious historian will correct these defects.” But to recognize that a historical narrative is partly a creation of the historian is not the same thing as dismissing the ideal of historical reconstruction out of hand and deciding, like the controversial theorist Hayden White, that historical narrative is just another form of fiction. If we are never to realize the 19th-century dream that history might become a completely objective science, neither should we give up and assume that there is no authentic past to uncover, no reality to try to re-create.

The re-creation of such authenticity ought to be the historian’s central concern, Wood says.

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.

Anachronistic thinking is the chief barrier to achieving a historical sense, and such reflexive thought processes are difficult to overcome; as Wood is well aware, “history books are as much a product of the present as the past.” What do the appearance and reception of any particular book tell us about ourselves and our culture at the moment the book appears? This is a theme that pops up again and again in Wood’s essays. In discussing Gary B. Nash, for instance, whom he classifies as one of the best of “the ‘race, class, gender’ historians of the past generation,” Wood demonstrates the futility of viewing history through the lenses of political ideology: Nash is “so bound up in the modern Marxian categories of class warfare” that he is hard put to account for whatever fails to conform with his rigid categories — such as the fact that many of the 18th-century aristocrats Nash so dislikes were leading abolitionists, or that the Scots-Irish radicals he admires were supporters of slavery in Pennsylvania.

Again stressing the manner in which current prejudices and concerns affect the writing of history, Wood presents Simon Schama’s fictionalized history Dead Certainties as the unfortunate and irresponsible surrender of a major historian to the postmodern affection for blurring the lines between fact and fiction. Schama’s “violation of the conventions of history writing actually puts the integrity of the discipline of history at risk,” Wood complains. “Those conventions of history writing, like any conventions, are fragile and always vulnerable to challenge; they are scarcely more than a century old?. hey have been painstakingly developed in the Western world and have respectable justifications for their existence; they ought not to be abandoned without a fight either to postmodern skepticism or to Schama’s playful experiments in narration.”

Wood displays a heartfelt (and more than justified) contempt for current academic jargon, castigating one scholar’s use of trendy catchwords: the book in question, he complains, is full of stinkers like ” ‘interpellation,’ ‘exfoliation,’ ‘ambiguation,’ ‘valorized,’ ‘intellection,’ ‘narrativized,’ and ‘meta’ this and ‘meta’ that.” “It is ironic, to say the least,” Wood grumbles, “that scholars eager to deconstruct ‘texts’ in order to expose the ways they wield power in our society should themselves create texts that mask and obscure much of what they want to say. And that bright younger scholars like Warner should be induced by the fashions of their discipline to use this jargon is an especially poignant form of ‘hegemonic coercion.’ ”

Most middlebrow readers, happily perusing old-fashioned narrative histories by popular authors like David McCullough and Ron Chernow, will be blissfully unaware of these bitter quarrels and turf wars within the profession. Wood’s book will open their eyes to such dramas; more important, it will attune readers to the political and theoretical agendas of the histories they read and help direct them toward the acquisition of that “historical sense” which is so elusive, and so valuable. “History adds another dimension to our view of the world and enriches our experience,” Wood insists. “Someone with a historical sense sees reality differently: in four dimensions.”