Gordon S. Wood: Chastises writers who use history to advance an agenda

Historians in the News

... In "The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History," Mr. Wood critiques and analyzes many of the important books of the past 25 years, with a special emphasis on works about the Revolutionary era. It is a collection of his review essays from publications such as the New Republic and the New York Review of Books.

His thoughts on the views expressed in the books he is reviewing are insightful and rigorously argued. Fortunately, his writings lack the stridency of some modern scholarship. Many readers will be just as interested in his views of the best ways to approach to writing about and analyzing the past.

Mr. Wood, a professor at Brown University, is especially hostile towards historians who use their work either to make a political statement about today or use modern-day values when evaluating the past. Although he is generally classified as a conservative and is clearly a strong foe of political correctness, that does not prevent him from criticizing those on the right who don't practice historical analysis as he sees fit.

He rightly criticizes John Patrick Diggins, a liberal-turned-conservative, for use of history not to enlighten readers about the past but instead to advance a philosophy.

"Since Diggins is not really a historian, he does not have a historian's feel for the complexity, the nuances, the contexts, and the differentness of the past. He thinks of history as a social scientist might think of it: as a source for generalizations about human behavior that transcend time and place," Mr. Wood writes of Mr. Diggins' 2000 book "On Hallowed Ground: Abraham Lincoln and the Foundations of American History."

He is equally hard on liberal scholars such as James MacGregor Burns, whom he describes as "a political activist for whom writing history is really politics by other means.''...

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Michael Davis - 5/7/2008

Here, here. He still isn't as bad as Sean Wilentz, et.al.
If he's promoting a book, God bless him.
Isn't our country great?

Randolph William Baxter - 3/12/2008

Interesting that Gordon Wood would criticize others for politicizing their work, since -- as I saw during my own graduate studies in history in the 1990s -- his own books on the "radicalism" of the American Revolution appeared during a time of growing conservatism and were used by many scholars to rehabilitate the validity of the Revolution after decades of New Left dismissal of our break-off from Britain as merely one ruling class (albeit a more pluralistic and increasingly potentially democrat, bourgeois version) overthrowing the previous ruling class (i.e., movement along the classic Marxist/Hegelian dialectic).

Regardless of his intentions in his own writing, does Professor Wood deny that his arguments fit into a more conservative historiographic mold? I honestly don't mean this as criticism, since he may have been dismayed at how his books were (mis)represented within the cultural debates of the 1980s-90s. Liberals are often caught in the middle between the far-lefties and the conservatives...

Caroline Hill - 3/12/2008

good grief. you too have tried to advance an agenda: what else was the message of Radicalism of the American Revolution?

Tim Matthewson - 3/12/2008

When a historian, out of the blue, makes a statement such as that he does not respect historians who used history to advance an agenda, I ask myself, what has this guy got to hide?
O! I see Wood is attempting to peddle his book!