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

23 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1594201547
ISBN-10: 1594201544
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--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Editorial Reviews

From 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 Books and 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 Dream over 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)
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"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 --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 323 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The (March 13, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594201544
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594201547
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.1 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,285,896 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Gordon S. Wood is Alva O. Way Professor of History Emeritus at Brown University. His books include the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Radicalism of the American Revolution, the Bancroft Prize-winning The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, and The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History. He writes frequently for The New York Review of Books and The New Republic.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

29 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Ronald H. Clark VINE VOICE on May 21, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I found this to be just an extremely valuable collection of essays by Gordon S. Wood, one of our leading historians of the colonial and early national period (see his "The Creation of the American Republic" among other studies), consisting of 21 of his review essays. These essays originally appeared in the New York Review of Books, the New Republic, or the Atlantic between 1981-2007. The book's impact derives from several considerations. First, it is Wood who is writing the reviews, with tempered judgment (for the most part) and unimpeachable command of the material. Second, what Wood is up to is to illustrate trends or approaches in writing American history, as demonstrated in the various books under review.

Some of the approaches or "trends" that Wood discusses, sometimes quite critically, include influence in intellectual history; writing history from the perspective of "contemporary consciousness"; is there still a place for good narrative history?; is the "new historicism" correct that everything is relative?; can history be written as fiction (Schama's "Dead Certainties" the subject of review); microhistory; multicultural history; comparative history; postmodern history; history and myth; and "presentism." His authors include Gary Wills; Joyce Appleby; Elkin & McKitrick; Gary Nash; Jon Butler; Jill Lapore; Pauline Maier and many others. If Wood had written a straight substantive article on trends in history, the reader's eyes might become glazed over. But the device of introducing and discussing (and sometimes deconstructing) each approach within the framework of reviewing a book manifesting that approach, keeps things much more interesting and lively than one might expect. Wood also has included a useful introductory essay and an index. So the book is a fun way to learn an awful lot about the writing of American history in this country during the last quarter century or so.
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Shane on May 4, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This book is a compilation of Gordon Wood's book reviews ranging from 1981 to 2007. They are arranged with chapter titles describing how each applies as a larger narrative on the contemporary state of the field of history. Examples of titles are "Microhistory" and "Anachronism in History".

The book is mostly a place for Wood to display his criticisms for postmodern historical methods. While it may seem like doing this by compiling book reviews is an odd way of doing so, the result is successful in displaying many of Wood's issues. Wood is a brutal reviewer, and there are no books that receive what could be considered "praise" while there are several that he handles ruthlessly. He is also a fairly accessible writer that any educated person should be able to understand, especially with these reviews which were written for general readers in the first place.

So what are Wood's specific views? The overall aura of this book is not necessarily that he despises all newer postmodern, multicultural ways of looking at history, but rather he is quite annoyed that they are completely taking over history. For instance, he is clearly frustrated that larger narratives are no longer accepted in the field of history, as everything has turned into microhistories. Microhistories are basically using individual stories of common people to help make inferences from the past. Wood is also frustrated with extreme multicultural history, which constantly distorts his beloved American Revolution topic that he has dedicated much of his life to. These are perhaps the most entertaining and well-argued reviews of the bunch. He seems to enjoy having a venue to bash the historians who have placed a huge meaning of the U.S. Constitution on its failure to free slaves.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Caleb N. Diffell on September 15, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Gordon Wood's _The Purpose of the Past_ is a collection of essays, actually book reviews, published over a period of 25 years. Wood has chosen from among his reviews those that relate specifically to the underlying theory and purpose (and possibility) of history research and writing. As such, the book is a good window into Wood's views on the current state of the discipline throughout the 1980's, 1990's, and 2000's. I would characterize the overall content and tone as Wood's uneasy relationship with the postmodern trend in historical writing that mirrors similar (but earlier) trends in other disciplines such as literary theory and architecture.

Wood's tone modulates throughout the three decades represented by these essays from rather sharp criticism of postmodern theories leaking into the historical disciplines to grudging acceptance of some of the supposed benefits of a multicultural, postmodern viewpoint of history. To his credit he remains a staunch antagonist to the most extreme ideas arising from postmodernism, particularly that all history is subjective and is essentially fiction because of the bias of the writer. Postmodernism identifies this concern and proceeds to fully embrace it, resulting in work that is indistinguishable from fiction, and boldly pronounces itself so. Wood is clearly unhappy with this trend and repeatedly defends the traditional historical methods designed to get as close as possible to, and treat as objectively as possible, past events. He recognizes it's impossible to be completely objective, but holds up objectivity as a goal to be striven for, rather than an antiquated artifact to be scorned.
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