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Historia (Santiago)

versión On-line ISSN 0717-7194

Historia (Santiago) v.42 n.1 Santiago jun. 2009 

HISTORIA N° 42, Vol. I, enero-junio 2009: 298-300 ISSN 0073-2435




GORDON S. WOOD, The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History. New York, The Penguin Press, 2008, 323 páginas.

Gordon Wood is a distinguished professor of history at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. His books include several classics, including The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1777, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, and the Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, among many others. A meticulous historian who is at home with the demands of serious research, Wood in this book demonstrates his skill at reaching a wider audience. The 21 chapters of this volume consist of reviews he has written for such magazines as The New Republic, and The New York Review of Books between 1981 and 2007. They are remarkable examples of how reviews can serve the very important purpose of bridging the gap between learned research, not always written in good or even understandable prose, and the larger public's desire to know more about history. In addition, not only do these essays render what the volumes under review are about, but they also show how the books' subjects place in a larger historiographical context. Most of the books he reviews are well chosen, for they represent the most controversial or significant volumes written on American topics in the last twenty-five years, including Simon Schama's Dead Certainties; Pauline Maier's American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence, and Joyce Appleby's Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans. Perhaps the most valuable quality of this book is the willingness of the author to be critical, though elegantly so, of the fads and follies of many historians, while at the time recognizing their merits. His fundamental aim is to expose what he calls "presentism" in history, that is, the use of the discipline to advance a variety of political and cultural agendas. History, the author also makes clear, is about the complexity of the past: how the thoughts and actions of concrete individuals respond directly to the surrounding circumstances of their time and place. Using history to advance positions on current issues, professor Wood tells us, is not only a bad idea: it is also a sure way to write bad history.

Indeed, he quite strongly states, quoting Rebecca West, that "when politics comes in the door, truth flies out the window," wryly adding that "historians who want to influence politics with their history writing have missed the point of the craft; they ought to run for office" (p. 308). At the same time, it is clear that Wood is also concerned about the implications of the "cultural history" that has dominated the field since the 1980s: "Many of the new cultural historians seem not to want to destroy memory as much as reshape it and make it useful to their particular cause, whatever it may be. Many of them have an instrumentalist view of history and see themselves essentially as cultural critics who wish to manipulate the past for the sake of the present. Rather than trying to understand the past on its own terms, these historians want the past to be immediately relevant and useful; they want to use history to empower people in the present, to help them develop self-identity, or to unable them to break free of that past" (p. 8). Not all the essays are about cultural history or about the dangers of "presentism," but it is clearly from these quarters that he sees the major threats against the integrity of the field.

Each of the essays is intended to illustrate "particular approaches to the writing of history". Hence, he addresses such subjects as what "influence" means when writing about a particular set of ideas or institutions; what "anachronism" does to our understanding of the past; what the perils are of blurring the line between history and fiction, and the problematic nature of digging into the past to extract "lessons" for the present. Regarding methodology, Wood provides some reflections on what "continuity" means in the field; the contributions of "microhistory;" the concept of "truth" in history; the relationship between history and politics as well as political theory; the importance of a serious consideration of ideas and intellectual history, and what is it that "comparative history" should or ought not to do. Finally, he issues a series of comments, some of them quite critical, on "postmodern" and "multicultural" history. In all cases, the discussions are not abstract or theoretical: they refer directly to the books under review, and seek to extract the value as well as identify the shortcomings of each of these monographs. Wood also adds an afterword to his articles to respond to reactions from the authors, express some regrets or concerns, and, mostly, to reiterate his points more forcefully.

Gordon Wood's central effort is to separate the craft of history from the blatant utilization of the field for any purpose other than a thorough understanding of the past. The fact that he does so while at the same time teaching how to engage the historiography, providing concrete examples on how to handle fundamental concepts in history, makes this volume all the more valuable.

Iván Jaksic

Stanford University, Estados Unidos