Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History

Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History

by Bernard Bailyn

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From one of the most respected historians in America, twice the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, a new collection of essays that reflects a lifetime of erudition and accomplishments in history.

The past has always been elusive: How can we understand people whose worlds were utterly different from our own without imposing our own standards and hindsight? What did


From one of the most respected historians in America, twice the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, a new collection of essays that reflects a lifetime of erudition and accomplishments in history.

The past has always been elusive: How can we understand people whose worlds were utterly different from our own without imposing our own standards and hindsight? What did things feel like in the moment, when outcomes were uncertain? How can we recover those uncertainties? What kind of imagination goes into the writing of transformative history? Are there latent trends that distinguish the kinds of history we now write? How unique was North America among the far-flung peripheries of the early British empire?

As Bernard Bailyn argues in this elegant, deeply informed collection of essays, history always combines approximations based on incomplete data with empathic imagination, interweaving strands of knowledge into a narrative that also explains. This is a stirring and insightful work drawing on the wisdom and perspective of a career spanning more than five decades—a book that will appeal to anyone interested in history.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Bailyn (The Barbarous Years), a Pulitzer Prize winner and emeritus Harvard historian, has long pursued the history of the era of the American Revolution, of the ideas that animate humans, and, in his latest works, of the peopling of the Western Hemisphere. Here, his muscular style undiminished, Bailyn reflects on all three subjects, plus the challenges of thinking historically. The nine essays in this volume, three of them previously unpublished, go back as far as 1954, the latest being from 2007. Nonspecialists shouldn’t be daunted by the subjects of the essays—current trends (not so current now) in historical scholarship, why history’s losers must be made part of the story of the past, the history of Britain’s provinces, and comparisons between the settling of North America and Australia. Though these essays have no argumentative thread, no single shared link, everything Bailyn tackles is written about authoritatively and winningly. One wishes only that this master historian had rounded out the implication of his book’s title: yes, history is sometimes an art, but what of the times when it isn’t? Otherwise, it’s an omnium-gatherum of this master historian’s scholarship over six decades. (Jan.)
From the Publisher
Praise for Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History:

“Engaging . . . Mr. Bailyn’s scholarship reveals a colonial world that is hard to see in buildings and other physical artifacts. Among much else, he captures the early fragility of the British Atlantic along with its emerging identities. Bringing such a world into focus on its own terms—and presenting it in a compelling narrative—puts the craft of history on display and illuminates precisely the ‘art’ of history that Mr. Bailyn champions so eloquently.” —William Anthony Hay, The Wall Street Journal
“The persona that presides in these nine extraordinary essays is one of humility at the daunting limitations of seeking to re-create the past . . . One of the delights of this book is that it gathers discordant threads and historical oddments that Bailyn strews throughout his narrative, in a light display of erudition . . . If there is a remonstrance with this collection, it is a complaint that any single one of its nine essays is worth a review in itself. This book would serve as a fitting valedictory for the author’s career and is required reading for anyone interested in the historian’s calling. If history is “sometimes an art,” Bernard Bailyn is surely an artist in its service.” —Jack Schwartz, The Daily Beast
“Dedicated to understanding the English-speaking world in the colonial era . . . The nine essays in this volume, written at various moments in Bailyn’s career, show the author at the top of his game, deeply immersed in his specific area of inquiry but also contemplating  broader questions about historiography and the goals of historical inquiry.” —Brendan Driscoll, Booklist
“Bernard Bailyn is one of the most distinguished historians in the Western world . . . He has brought his own creative and imaginative powers to bear on the his field of early American history . . .  This collection gives a sampling of his skills and his historical imagination.” —Gordon S. Wood, The Weekly Standard

Further critical acclaim for Bernard Bailyn and his work:
“For approximately half a century, Bailyn has been the country’s most distinguished and influential scholar of the Revolution . . . It is no exaggeration to say that his influence on what the nation knows about its beginnings is immense, if incalculable.” —Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post Book World

“One of America’s most discerning historians. His thinking is subtle. His style is forceful . . . Throughout [To Begin the World Anew] he retains a sense of wonder that those men in a clump of distant British provinces could have wrought a political system, a view of the world, that is so imaginative and enduring.” —Anthony Day, Los Angeles Times  

“[Bailyn’s] fusions—of the general and the particular, of the abstract and the concrete, of thought and feeling— are the ideal of modern historical writing.” —Naomi Bliven, The New Yorker (on Voyagers to the West)
“If we are lucky, we will have our times analyzed by a historian with the intellectual and literary skills of Bernard Bailyn, who in The Barbarous Years provides a highly detailed and meticulously researched account of the first great stage of England’s dominion over North America . . . The Barbarous Years [is] a cornucopia of human folly, mischief and intrigue.” —James A. Percoco, The Washington Independent Review of Books
“[The Barbarous Years is] simply magisterial: sweeping, authoritative, commanding. But it is that and so much more. It has rare scholarly warmth, an understanding of how to be nimble with the material, to be an entertainer as well as a teacher.” —Peter Lewis, The Christian Science Monitor

Kirkus Reviews
A Pulitzer Prize-winning historian considers the "unsuspected complexities" of recovering the past.In this gathering of nine essays, published from 1954 to 2007, Bailyn (Emeritus, History/Harvard Univ.; The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675, 2012, etc.) illuminates the historian's craft. In five pieces on historiography, he considers the distinction between history and collective memory and historians' struggle to hone a sharp, clear lens—undistorted by personal "assumptions, attitudes, beliefs, and experiences"—through which to investigate the realities of past lives. In several essays on the early British Empire, the focus of much of the author's scholarship, he examines Britain's relationship with Scotland, the North American colonies and Australia; and the mysteriously vilified Thomas Hutchinson, about whom Bailyn wrote a biography. A tribute to historian Isaiah Berlin gives Bailyn an occasion to reflect on the political and cultural impact of perfectionist movements. The historian's greatest problem, writes the author, lies in "recovering the contexts in which events take place." He distinguishes between "manifest history," "the story of events that contemporaries were clearly aware of, that were…so to speak headline events in their own time," and history that discovers elusive "latent events," unrecorded by contemporaries, that "form a new landscape, like that of the ocean floor…never seen before as actual rocks, ravines, and cliffs" but that inexorably shape "the surface world." Such events include commonplace experiences: the discomfort, for example, "of clothing that itched, of shoes that tore the feet, of lice, fleas, and vermin." Historians that Bailyn most admires—Perry Miller, Charles McLean Andrews, Lewis Namier and Ronald Syme—were exemplars of contextualization and, therefore, "redirectors of inquiry." Informing all of these graceful, authoritative essays is the mind of a humanist whose project is to reanimate "a hitherto unglimpsed world."

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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6.00(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)

Meet the Author

BERNARD BAILYN is Adams University Professor and James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History Emeritus at Harvard University. He founded, and for many years directed, the International Seminar on the History of the Atlantic World, which helped to reorient the study of the Atlantic region in the early modern era. His previous books include The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, which received the Pulitzer and Bancroft Prizes in 1968; The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson, which won the 1975 National Book Award for History; Voyagers to the West, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987; Atlantic History: Concept and Contours; and The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600–1675.

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