Short essays by noted scholar Foner (The Story of American Freedom, 1998, etc.) on the role history has played in recent times, including his own.
The intellectual currents of Foner’s life serve as the basis for this collection. He discusses how he came to write his own version of American history; the role his mentor, Columbia professor Richard Hofstadter, played in his development as a scholar; and how his experiences working as a historian in the former Soviet Union shaped his recent thoughts on his discipline. Foner (History/Columbia Univ.) displays an amazing breadth of knowledge, but the real joy here is his accessibility. Anyone can read these pieces, written in clear, generous prose. The author seems aware that his interests and struggles are relatively narrow and that readers won’t share them unless he writes without jargon or cant. As a result, even non-eggheads will care about Hofstadter’s academic travails as presented by his affectionate former student. Left-leaning Foner devotes plenty of time to socialism, another potentially dreary subject here made engaging. His essay “Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?” may be the single best attempt to answer that question. In fact, like any good teacher, he winds up creating new questions instead of answering the old, ultimately rephrasing his query as “Does Socialism have a future in Europe?” Foner has teeth, too. He delivers a broadside to Ken Burns’s television documentary The Civil War, contending that the director commits the most fatal error for a wannabe historian: instead of allowing the facts to build an argument, Foner writes, Burns’s analysis “bears more resemblance to turn-of-century romantic nationalism than to modern understandings of the war’s complex and ambiguous consequences.”
A lucid antidote to the sensationalist histories currently in vogue.