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Americans have been treated to some insightful books on our politics by British commentators of late--Fairlie's The Parties, Hodgson's America in Our Time, and Shawcross' Sideshow head the list--so this collection of essays by Oxford's Rhodes Professor of American History and Institutions may signal a more scholarly barrage on our history as well. Spanning two decades, from 1958 to 1978, this selection shows Pole both as a spokesman for a particular approach to historical writing, and as a practitioner of it. In several essays discussing the work of other historians, Pole argues against the idea that history should be written from the perspective of the historian; that is, that history should be made to serve a purpose, be it support for social reform (Beard) or ""the dogma of the absence of dogma"" (Boorstin). In Pole's view, American historians have had a tendency to forget that the past is the past, and that time ""is the prism. . . through which we may hope to perceive the dead."" For Pole, this means a concerted effort to reconstitute the past in its own terms. The essay ""Historians and the Problem of Early American Democracy"" shows that the colonists' idea of democracy was very different from our current understanding, being based on a Whig view of property and representation and compatible with limited suffrage and slavery. This theme is also taken up in a series of essays dealing with the idea of a ""majority,"" with slavery, and with the concepts of representation, property, and law. In all of these, Pole shows the distance between us and the past that alone makes it possible to understand it. And in this respect, as well as in his insistence on placing American history in an Anglo-American context, Pole is in (unacknowledged) agreement with Bernard Bailyn and his school; still, Pole's British perspective sets him apart, as when he devotes an essay to Lincoln's impact on the British working class. The more polemical essays, grouped at the end, are accessible, while the others are more specialized in their presentation. A welcome collection as a whole.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1979
Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press