The Purpose of the Past

Reflections on the Uses of History

By Gordon S. Wood
(Penguin Press HC, The, Hardcover, 9781594201547, 336pp.)

Publication Date: March 13, 2008

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Description

Reflections on the historian's craft and its place in American culture, from a master craftsman

History is to society what memory is to the individual: without it, we don't know who we are, and we can't make wise decisions about where we should be going. But while the nature of memory is a constant, the nature of history has changed radically over the past forty years, for good but also for ill. In The Purpose of the Past, historian Gordon S. Wood examines the sea change in the field through considerations of some of its most important historians and their works. His book serves as both a history of American history-neither wholly a celebration nor a critique-and an argument for its ongoing necessity.

These are both the best of times and the worst of times for American history. New currents of thought have brought refreshing and vitally necessary changes to the discipline, expanding its compass to include previously underexamined and undervalued groups and subjects. At the same time, however, strains of extreme, even nihilistic, relativism have assaulted the relevance, even the legitimacy, of the historian's work. The divide between the work of academic and popular historians has widened into a chasm, separating some of the field's most important new ideas from what would give them much greater impact: any kind of real audience.

But The Purpose of the Past is not another crotchety elegy for what history once was but sadly now isn't; it is also a celebration of what, at its best, it is, and a powerful argument for its ongoing necessity. Along the way The Purpose of the Past offers wonderful insight into what great historians do, and how they can stumble, and what strains of thought have dominated the marketplace of ideas in historical scholarship. A master historian's commanding assessment of his field, The Purpose of the Past will enlarge the capacity to appreciate history of anyone who reads it

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