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

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

by Gordon S. Wood
     
 

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An erudite scholar and an elegant writer, Gordon S. Wood has won both numerous awards and a broad readership since the 1969 publication of his widely acclaimed The Creation of the American Republic. With The Purpose of the Past, Wood has essentially created a history of American history, assessing the current state of history vis-à-vis the work

Overview

An erudite scholar and an elegant writer, Gordon S. Wood has won both numerous awards and a broad readership since the 1969 publication of his widely acclaimed The Creation of the American Republic. With The Purpose of the Past, Wood has essentially created a history of American history, assessing the current state of history vis-à-vis the work of some of its most important scholars-doling out praise and scorn with equal measure. In this wise, passionate defense of history's ongoing necessity, Wood argues that we cannot make intelligent decisions about the future without understanding our past. Wood offers a master's insight into what history-at its best-can be and reflects on its evolving and essential role in our culture.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Essential reading for anyone who cares about history."
-Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

"Illuminating . . . [Wood's] pitch-perfect erudition is legendary."
-Douglas Brinkley, Los Angeles Times

Jonathan Yardley
The Purpose of the Past is a beacon of common sense, sanity and wisdom. It is rare indeed when a collection of mere book reviews can stand alone as a unified and coherent book, but that is just what this one is. Handsomely written, deeply informed and resolutely fair-minded, it is essential reading for anyone who cares about history and the uses and abuses to which we subject it.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

The subtitle of this latest offering from Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Wood (The Radicalism of the American Revolution) is far grander than what he delivers between the covers: a collection of 21 book reviews of works by Simon Schama, Theodore Draper and Joyce Appleby, among others, written over the past three decades for periodicals like the New York Review of Booksand the New Republic. Though reviews are occasional pieces not designed to be republished years later, some of Wood's pieces make enduring points. He lambastes scholars who clutter their writing with unintelligible jargon, and he worries that today's historical scholarship, too driven by present concerns, fails to retain a sense of how the past really is different. He makes clear that he prefers old-fashioned political history to cultural history that draws on postmodern theory. Indeed, the book is maddeningly repetitive: Wood invokes Peter Novick's This Noble Dreamover and over, though not as often as he laments the use of theory in cultural history and the "radical Foucault-like agendas" that seem to drive certain literary historians. This volume is not without merit, but rather than appending a short afterword to each review, Wood would have done better to craft a new, unified reflection on the discipline of history. (Mar. 17)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
History teaches little and has scarce influence on the present. So why bother to study it at all?This sometimes impatient set of essays by noted historian Wood (Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, 2006, etc.) offers a provocative answer: Knowledge of the past may not necessarily guide decisions made in the present-would that it did-but it at least "can have a profound effect on our consciousness, on our sense of ourselves." Rather hippie-ish sentiments, one might think, but in Wood's universe consciousness embraces the political, which can be good and bad. Thus James McGregor Burns, for instance, comes in for a shellacking in a 1982 New York Review of Books piece for imagining in The Vineyard of Liberty that the 1850s were, like the 1960s, full of revolutionary potential, lacking but a sans-culotte leader to set things in motion: "But then one sometimes forgets," writes Wood, "that Burns is a political activist for whom writing history is really politics by other means." Similarly, Barbara Tuchman, who had a few political axes of her own to grind, gets a gentler but still tough assessment for her insistence that history has some utility. Wood is careful to distinguish her portentous popularizing from that of David McCullough, "who genuinely seems to want just to tell a good story about the past." Elsewhere, Wood writes approvingly of big-picture endeavors such as David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed (1989), while taking books such as Simon Schama's Dead Certainties (1991) to task for confounding history and fiction. History does teach one big lesson after all, Wood concludes: "Nothing ever works out quite the way its managers intended or expected."A takeaway pointwell worth the price of admission, but there are many more in this solid collection. Fruitful reading for academics and history buffs alike.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780143115045
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
01/27/2009
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
336
Sales rank:
1,157,391
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Meet the Author

Gordon S. Wood is the Alva O. Way University Professor of History at Brown University. A Pulitzer Prize winner, he is a regular contributor to The New Republic and The New York Review of Books.

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