Authored by: Gordon S. Wood
Reviewed by: Kevin Miller
Keyword: History; Early American History; American Revolution; Historiography; Research Integrity
The Essence of the Book:
For decades, Dr. Gordon Wood has been considered one of the leading experts on the history of the time surrounding America’s founding—his books have won prominent awards ranging from the Bancroft Prize to the Pulitzer Prize for History.
This particular gem of a book should be required reading, ranked above every other book of history I have ever read. Why? Because of the book’s structure, truthfulness about the writing of history, and impact on the reader.
Wood started reviewing books by well-known historians for popular publications like The New York Review of Books and The New Republic in the early 1980s. This book is a collection of 21 of his reviews written over many years. Thoughtful, delightful dozen-page essays elegantly weave together the essence of each book with Wood’s cogent additional insights and astute critiques of core assumptions or biases.
Why is this important? Because over the past five decades or so, the field of history has become fragmented into narrow focuses that become the foundational ax to grind for each particular author’s history book: is it an oppressed person’s view, a poor person’s view, an elitist leader’s view? “History” is thus consistently interpreted to merely reflect the author’s preferred philosophy or focus.
In one sense, this balkanization of transmitting history that has emerged was needed: the marginalized, for example, rarely have meaningful representation in the “important” government, business, correspondence, or diary documents that serious historians have traditionally reviewed. The kaleidoscopic experience of a complex society is lost when so few people—the “important” ones—left a trail to discover.
All too routinely, the narrative that ends up being taught in public schools or adopted as foundational in public policy becomes—inevitably perhaps—very politicized. Which gender narrative? Which ethnicity narrative? Which class narrative?
With that said, this book is actually a special work of historiography: the study of historical writing. Each chapter is titled with an eye towards the real historiographical issue at hand—21 distinctly different issues! Each book review contains refreshing learning about the mostly early-America book topics and drives home the difficulties of the assumptions embedded in each of the books reviewed.
Indeed, history is naturally a complicated mess. As Wood goes on his journey of criticism, the reader is invited along: this book definitively helps put the reader on guard from this point forward to challenge the veracity of every historian’s account.
Have you witnessed an event live or seen that-day videos of the event on the web and then listened to a couple of different commentators report on the event? The first commentator offers an opinion so far removed from the reality of the event you just saw that you are astounded. Then you change to a different commentator with another ideological slant and that commentator has another opinion that is far removed from the very happening you witnessed.
So, if people are so willing to slant their opinions regarding easily accessed real-time events that they know others have actually seen, how reliable are historians who resource and selectively excerpt or use materials their readers will never see?
In particular, how reliable is the “history” being written or produced by historians beholden to schools of thought (e.g., Marxist, Keynesian, Christian sectarian) and institutions (e.g., colleges, denominations) for their salaries, their publications, their professional reputations, their social standing? In this hyper-political phase of American culture and education, just how reliable are historians?
In short, history is too important to be left solely to many of the professional historians! Think of that before you pick up your next history book or biography.
But history remains a vital part of every achieving person’s equipment. If you are not effectively well-read in substantive, foundationally accurate history of key world events, your country, your career sector—well, then, you can be sure you will pay the price in a number of ways. It’s likely that you will be left bewildered and actually unaware that it was your lack of historical understanding that foundationally led you astray.
And these issues extend well beyond history, into fields like theology.
What to do? Here are some steps to consider as one approach:
- Work to understand the landscape of thinking in your chosen focus of study first. Who is authoritative in the desired knowledge, and why?
- Contrast the two or three top authorities of different “schools of thought” in the field and, with study and prayer, discern who is more/most correct—and why. Regardless, understand that every person or school of thought has blind spots.
- In fields of work that are changing fairly rapidly in the current era, recognize that new authorities will arise, and more established authorities often have difficulty morphing to the latest research or realities and can become outdated.
- Recognize that pretenders and false prophets will create new “knowledge” in attempts to differentiate themselves and prosper.
- Read, listen to, and research the best available sources. Constantly contrast, then discard or astutely integrate the newly-acquired information, according to its worthiness.
- Constantly continue to challenge what you think you know (example: almost all schools of theology disagree with one another in some meaningful way) and more deeply anchor to what you know is true, the foundations. Be humble—humility is in short supply for many here.
- Thank God Himself that you live in an era with unparalleled access to information. That massively expanded access is the privilege of only the last generation or two.
- Be fruitful. You are appointed to this very time.
Wood substantially does much of this for us in this remarkable book of compiled book reviews: encapsulating the authors’ views, adding insights, gently but tellingly poking on assumptions, calling out questionable approaches where applicable, encouraging strengths.
Wood does this 21 times in a row. In short, Wood is modeling how to improve our knowledge and thinking, no matter the field. What a tremendous value to us to watch this modeled so astutely!
Rare is the book that does this. Read the introduction first—very important foundations are laid by Wood. Then enjoy a chapter at a time, taking time to reflect, think, and savor each chapter—you will find each and every chapter enlightening and engaging. When finished with the book in due course, peruse and reclaim the big themes that The Purpose of the Past provides.
Then emulate Wood’s approach towards books and perspectives amidst your research of history, of faith, of life itself. We all need you to lead the way in discerning, quality thinking and doing in our current era.
Where Have You Gone, Gordon Wood? from historian Michael S. Hattem’s blog post on “The Junto, A Group Blog on Early American History” where Dr. Hattem addresses Wood’s alleged decline in influence on younger historians in recent years along the very lines addressed in this review. Has Wood indeed “sold out” to popular crowds with his bestsellers and stopped being a highly reliable historian?
Then which of the 21 different approaches that Wood critiques in this book is a “more correct” approach to the writing of history?
Or could it be that Wood has lost favor with some of the next generation of historians as the consequence of these very book reviews written over decades, implicitly or explicitly criticizing many historians’ approaches?
Read this book: I would bet you then likely agree with me that Wood is still the gold standard, even when sporting a wart or two—as we all do, of course.
Reviewed by Kevin Miller