Bernard Bailyn’s Last Act?

Historians in the News
tags: interview, Bernard Bailyn, Sometimes An Art



Bernard Bailyn’s contribution to our understanding of early American history is so vast that it’s easy to forget he’s still publishing books. His writings on the American Revolution, begun in the 1960s, remain required reading for any doctoral student studying for orals. And even since retiring from Harvard a quarter century ago, he’s continued to influence the field, perhaps nowhere more than through his promotion of Atlantic history.

Yet even at 92, Bailyn isn’t finished. His new book, Sometimes An Art: Nine Essays on History (Knopf), can be read in a number of ways: as an introduction to his vast corpus of work; a chance to respond to his critics; a reflection on the meaning of history; and, perhaps, a summing up of sorts. “It reflects some of my own work over the years,” Bailyn told me during an interview from Boston. The essays he’s chosen to include, dating from 1954 to 2007, have only appeared in either obscure publications or dated back issues of prominent journals. But in one way or another, he said, they “concentrate on certain major themes” in all his work. 

One recurrent theme is the need for historians to check their biases at the scholarly door. Bailyn isn’t arguing that a stark line can divide our personal views on the present from how we view the past. But he rejects the notion that history should serve as a tool for contemporary social critique. In an essay from The William and Mary Quarterly (2001) reflecting on the then new Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, Bailyn argues that historians must be careful not to let the emotional response slavery induces distort their scholarship. Instead, historians should let “the timeless memory of the slave trade that tears at our conscience and shocks our sense of decency” bring attention and urgency to their work.

In other essays, Bailyn expands on the need for scholars to see the past from all possible perspectives, to see it “whole,” as he writes. He insists that we must always be sympathetic to historical figures who today may seem morally repugnant. In other words, we must remain sensitive to the constraints they faced and the vast distance that separates their worldview from ours. The greatest historians of the twentieth century all had this capacity, he writes, a creative imagination that Bailyn sees as akin to a novelist’s.

The book’s title, he explained, “comes from [my] belief that history is sometimes an art, always a craft, and never a science, though science can deepen our understanding of the past.” He added, “We grope for the whole truth of what has happened, but can never fully reach it, and settle for the best approximation we can make.” ...




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