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Forrest McDonald is a legend in his own time. The NEH's sixteenth Jefferson Lecturer, he is one of our most eminent historians and the author of numerous provocative works on the early American republic, the Constitution, and the American presidency. Renowned for his sly wit and iconoclasm, he is also a conservative in a mostly liberal profession, a man who believes that his discipline has been subverted by those who serve public policy agendas. He now candidly recounts and reconsiders his own career, mixing in equal measure autobiography with a sharp critique of the historical craft.
Beginning in 1949, McDonald has traversed a sometimes rocky academic road from Brown University to Wayne State and finally the University of Alabama. He rose to prominence by arguing against the popular histories of Frederick Jackson Turner and Charles Beard, and his rebuttal of the latter was published as his seminal book We the People. Recovering the Past carries forward this critical tradition with McDonald's pointed comments on fellow historians from Kenneth Stampp to William Appleton Williams, his admiration for Oscar Handlin's book Truth in History, and his distaste for the revisionism of the New Left historians who depict the American story as an epic of oppression.
"The norm is to write for one's fellow historians," he says, "but that seems to me to be wrong-headed and to result in stultifying reading. I have chosen, instead, to write for that elusive critter called the general reader, or, more precisely, for the vast number of people who genuinely love history for its own sake—which, as will become evident, I regard as eliminating a sizable majority of professional historians."
As McDonald observes, thinking historically facilitates our knowing who and where we are, and the reward of studying the past comes when one realizes how its many parts fit together. As the pieces of his own past fall together, they form a story that will engross, inform, and even gall readers seeking an inside look behind the ivied walls of academe. Recovering the Past offers an eye-opening look at one man and his discipline; more than that, it is a manifesto for those who truly care about history.
1. On the Historical Enterprise
2. The World as I Entered It
3. A New Game and a New Player
4. The Adventures of We the People
5. A Barefoot Boy in the Ivy League, and a Lot of New Players
6. The Sixties, Seventies, and a Bit Beyond
7. The Grand (?) Finale
Appendix: The Intellectual World of the Founding Fathers
Posted August 13, 2004
The title is right on target. With well-founded conviction and wry good humor, Forrest McDonald shows in his latest work, Recovering the Past, how thoroughly many venerable and honored historians have been redoing and remodeling - indeed, recovering, as though they were so many pieces of old family furniture - what we have properly assumed were essential parts of our history and heritage. In reviewing both the craft of these professional historians and the sometimes smug defenses of their handiwork, McDonald proceeds to show as well the importance of recovering the recorded facts, the critical details, and the actual accounts of times past so that, once we are able to see clearly who and where we were, perhaps in addition, we can better understand who and where we are. Since McDonald prefers to expose and explore the original decor of our history, not to redesign or redecorate it to popular taste, he hopes that we will have enough wit and discernment to see, in a sense, the sturdy, albeit rough-hewn, utilitarian furniture of our past beneath the slip-covers, tassels and trappings, paint, pillows, and pads that changing fashions in the writing of history have thrown over it. McDonald jauntily recounts his personal adventures starting out in the world as a young man, then becoming a teacher, husband, and father, then coming to prominence as a historian. Along the way, he notes several of his encounters with a variety of associates who have axes to grind, complacent dogmatists who have seen the light and who know the true way, hobby-horse jockeys racing to win accolades ahead of their peers, and other assorted pontificators and charlatans. The consequent wariness he develops during these experiences seems, in part at least, to motivate and account for his earnest commitment to do what he can toward recovering the past - an enterprise, he emphasizes, that has been and continues to be a most pleasurable one for him For McDonald, historians who 'justify their existence by pointing their research and writing toward the furtherance of a present public-policy agenda that they regard as desirable, and [who] insist that historians can behave in no other way... [are] led...to view the past interns of struggles between good people, whose goals squared with what they [regard] as desirable, and bad people, whose goals did not.' Surely, such a position makes recovering the past vitally necessary if the past is to have a chance of being seen clearly in the future. Although he does not refer to the time-worn adage: 'Don't believe everything you read in the newspapers', McDonald might well tack on to it: 'Don't believe everything you read in most of the history books either.' In his Preface, McDonald states 'without reservation: for all its faults, this country has more to be proud of and less to be ashamed of than any nation on the face of the globe. I did not set out to prove that proposition; my instincts and my research led me to it, and I have little patience for those who say otherwise.' Hear! Hear!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.