History teaches little and has scarce influence on the present. So why bother to study it at all?
This sometimes impatient set of essays by noted historian Wood (Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, 2006, etc.) offers a provocative answer: Knowledge of the past may not necessarily guide decisions made in the present—would that it did—but it at least “can have a profound effect on our consciousness, on our sense of ourselves.” Rather hippie-ish sentiments, one might think, but in Wood’s universe consciousness embraces the political, which can be good and bad. Thus James McGregor Burns, for instance, comes in for a shellacking in a 1982 New York Review of Books piece for imagining in The Vineyard of Liberty that the 1850s were, like the 1960s, full of revolutionary potential, lacking but a sans-culotte leader to set things in motion: “But then one sometimes forgets,” writes Wood, “that Burns is a political activist for whom writing history is really politics by other means.” Similarly, Barbara Tuchman, who had a few political axes of her own to grind, gets a gentler but still tough assessment for her insistence that history has some utility. Wood is careful to distinguish her portentous popularizing from that of David McCullough, “who genuinely seems to want just to tell a good story about the past.” Elsewhere, Wood writes approvingly of big-picture endeavors such as David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed (1989), while taking books such as Simon Schama’s Dead Certainties (1991) to task for confounding history and fiction. History does teach one big lesson after all, Wood concludes: “Nothing ever works out quite the way its managers intended or expected.”
A takeaway point well worth the price of admission, but there are many more in this solid collection. Fruitful reading for academics and history buffs alike.