Bernard Bailyn’s influence on the profession is hailed in the WSJ

Historians in the News
tags: Bernard Bailyn

Does the writing of history stand alongside literature in the realm of culture or within the very different sphere of social science? Bernard Bailyn implicitly returns to that pivotal question throughout “Sometimes an Art,” a collection of essays that takes up broad thematic topics (e.g., trends in modern history) and narrower ones as well (the British Empire’s cultural provinces). It is clear throughout the collection—in its method and in the author’s reflections on his academic discipline—that the task of interpreting the past requires not only a careful search for evidence but also “a kind of literary imagination.” Mr. Bailyn notes that, “like a novelist,” the historian must conjure “a nonexistent, an impalpable world in all its living comprehension, and yet to do this within the constraints of verifiable facts.”

A steep challenge, to be sure, but one that Mr. Bailyn has met in a long career of scholarship and writing. Twice winner of the Pulitzer Prize for history, he has trained generations of graduate students who have themselves shaped the study of American history. Three of them—Gordon Wood, Michael Kammen and Jack Rakove—have won Pulitzers themselves. With his commitment to narrative, Mr. Bailyn has transformed careful scholarship and analysis into books that the general reader can read with profit, not least “The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution,” the work for which he is probably best known, published in 1967. More than 50 years later, at the age of 90, he published “The Barbarous Years” (2012), on the 17th-century settlement of North America. A seminar at Harvard that Mr. Bailyn began teaching in the 1980s, on the subject of “the Atlantic World,” helped to bring into existence an entire field of study, one that now links European and American history in ever more enlightening ways.

The nine essays that Mr. Bailyn presents in “Sometimes an Art” mix narrative and analysis in an engaging way, examining the nature and practice of history and detailing, in particular, aspects of the British Empire’s colonial periphery at the time of America’s founding. Spanning decades, the essays present a dialogue between a working historian and the developments in his field.

Though never quite explicitly, Mr. Bailyn’s arguments point to the danger of history becoming a closed discourse among specialists. He clearly recognizes the value of new interpretative techniques and perspectives—including the quantitative history that emerged in the 1960s—but he insists that they be used to provide readable accounts of history’s major developments. The writing of history still involves showing what course the past took and explaining why.

Quantitative history, an approach using statistics and computer databases, began as an aggressive effort to make history writing more “scientific” and thus more defensible to skeptics who worried that historians were engaged in something akin to storytelling: too much Thomas Babington Macaulay and not enough methodological rigor. But often quantitative history substituted number crunching for interpretation or failed to reach beyond “what” to ask “why.” Part of Mr. Bailyn’s purpose, in this collection and elsewhere, is to reassert history’s literary tradition while harvesting the material uncovered by quantitative work and other “scientific” schools of historical analysis. ...

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