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Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History by…
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Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History

by Bernard Bailyn

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The following article is located at: http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2015/novdec/how-to-write-history.html

How to Write History
Bernard Bailyn's prescriptions.
Bruce Kuklick | posted 10/19/2015

Bailyn's standpoint on the Atlantic past links up with his reflections on historical knowledge. History, "sometimes an art," most of all reminds him of a craft. He conceives that while study of the past never rises to the scientific, historians exert themselves to "get it right" as a form of story-telling, and strive for an impossible "objectivity." That well-worn word, the author says in various places, implies an impartial and synoptic view; Bailyn regularly intimates that a perfect historical analysis would resemble a wide angle camera moving above a gigantic geographical region over some vast period of time.

This ideal regulates the conduct of real, imperfect historians, who of course cannot take in everything that happens over a huge area and do not have an indefinite perceptual span. Real historians, Bailyn goes on, struggle toward the ideal by basing their narratives on as much evidence about the past as they can obtain. They write their histories to avoid "presentism," and they value "contextualism." Bailyn's intellectual heroes, that is, do their best to shun the biases of the contemporary world and put their information into proper perspective.
__________________________________________________​
Bernard Bailyn survives as the only member of the group of American historians who last commanded more than professional attention, and who wrote with authority not just for the Organization of American Historians but for a public that now hungers after serious history. This elite included Bailyn's peer Edmund Morgan, and C. Vann Woodward and Richard Hofstadter. Sometimes an Art, a collection of essays that Bailyn has selected to represent his concerns at the end of an extended career, has in fact an elegiac dimension.

Long emeritus at Harvard, Bailyn wrote these essays over fifty years. The earliest dates from 1954, the most recent from 2007, although the center of gravity rests in the 1980s with work now some three decades old. Two of the compositions appear for the first time, and a few have had some minor updating although most have been printed here as they were initially published. Read in an appropriate order, the essays show Bailyn's evolution from a biographer and political historian of the American Revolution to an expert on England's trans-oceanic diaspora from 1500 to 1800. All nine items can be read with interest, more than interest; and for an amateur, as I am in history before the 18th century, they illuminate despite their age, and despite what Bailyn calls their "occasional" nature. The illumination stems from Bailyn's sweep and scope, and his stunning and lucid prose. The title of the book also suggests an underlying theme: Bailyn explores the assumptions that undergird historical accounts, as well as giving us accounts of the Atlantic past.

What about the Atlantic past?

Colonial America was what you used to study in the first-half of the US history survey at college—"America to the Civil War." The course concentrated on underclassmen's appreciation of the Revolution and the Constitution. This history has metamorphosed to investigations of "the Atlantic world" from the 16th to the early 19th century. Requirements sometimes still mandate that undergraduates take the class, but the students find themselves bored and confused: the politics of the late 18th century become ancillary to the spread of assorted folk from England, Scotland, Spain, and Africa to places where they were not born. The quest for economic markets and profits, and poverty in Britain especially, upend settled conditions on both sides of the Atlantic. Educators at schools of higher learning report on various forms of early-modern misery, coerced labor, and the destruction of aboriginals. Late adolescents have it drummed into their heads that the American colonies did not exhibit the growth of freedom but the development of capitalism and racism.

Most honest historians will tell you that 18- and 19-year-olds, when they can, have voted with their feet in avoiding this course, which is defectively connected to the history of the United States. Specialists have failed to promote their Atlantic world agenda, and to make well-off young persons feel ashamed of their heritage of racial privilege. This academic disregard for the nationalizing politics of the United States, I believe, has spawned the enormous number of patriotic popular biographies of the Founding Fathers. If non-academics cannot learn the historical rudiments of American citizenship at university, they will get the basics somewhere else. In aiming to reorient freshpersons and sophomores to a professorial style of thinking, instructors have had the opposite effect from what they have anticipated. If you are accustomed to the ironies that arise in inquiry of the past, this phenomenon has the familiarity of an old friend.

Bailyn has a large responsibility for Atlantic history, but he framed matters in contrast to his epigoni who dominate lecture halls today. During his floruit, he allowed us to have a broader conception of the Atlantic world for the United States. The dispersal of British and African populations set the stage, for Bailyn, for readers to gain the most inclusive insights about the Revolution and Constitution.

Bailyn's standpoint on the Atlantic past links up with his reflections on historical knowledge. History, "sometimes an art," most of all reminds him of a craft. He conceives that while study of the past never rises to the scientific, historians exert themselves to "get it right" as a form of story-telling, and strive for an impossible "objectivity." That well-worn word, the author says in various places, implies an impartial and synoptic view; Bailyn regularly intimates that a perfect historical analysis would resemble a wide angle camera moving above a gigantic geographical region over some vast period of time.

This ideal regulates the conduct of real, imperfect historians, who of course cannot take in everything that happens over a huge area and do not have an indefinite perceptual span. Real historians, Bailyn goes on, struggle toward the ideal by basing their narratives on as much evidence about the past as they can obtain. They write their histories to avoid "presentism," and they value "contextualism." Bailyn's intellectual heroes, that is, do their best to shun the biases of the contemporary world and put their information into proper perspective.

Historians inevitably grasp ideas about the past denied to the people living in it; researchers have some sense of how the story has turned out, and are inevitably burdened by knowledge that those written about did not have. At the same time, doctoral training lightens this burden. The best craftsmen go all out "to understand the past in its own terms." They strain to take in "the meaning of documents, the motivations of historical actors in their original historical settings," and they direct "their greatest suspicions and vigilance … at anachronism." The best historians undertake to recapture the ignorance of their protagonists about the future, to pretend to a certain unawareness.

Bailyn thus directs historians "to suspend their present commitments sufficiently to enter different worlds." At one place in the book he puts into play his substantial ability not to suffer fools gladly, and displays irritation at later generations of historians who have denounced the racist stances of the Founding Fathers. These historians have embraced the worst form of presentism; they have ignored, in Bailyn's view, the outlook of the late 18th century, and have showered men like Jefferson with condemnation from the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Here Bailyn is exasperated that historians nowadays aim at an easy target like the opinions of the Founders about Africans and African Americans. Fashionable practitioners make simplistic censorious appraisals derived from a modern sensibility, without regard to the social milieu that constrained public figures in the 1700s. Bailyn dislikes the comfortable self-righteousness and condescension of those who have given us the non-survey of US history to 1865.

To this sentiment I would just like to say Amen. But matters hold more difficulty than that, and they hold more difficulty for Bailyn. He recognizes a predicament with his "contextualism," and admits an unresolvable trouble in that the consequence "of succeeding in contextualizing history is essentially moral." We show sympathy for those "not only distant but alien." "To explain contextually is, implicitly at least, to excuse."

But Bailyn does not excuse, and his sympathy has limits. He writes of "latent and manifest events." The manifest ones consciously shape the behavior of past individuals. The latent ones differ; they operate invisibly in the past itself, although current historians can see them functioning. Bailyn urges that the scholar integrate the manifest and latent. We want, for example, to comprehend the intentions of the early modern slaver, but also to incorporate this comprehension into our up-to-date apprehension of mercantile commerce, demographic change, the cultural patterns pertinent to slavery, and the psychological dynamics of oppression. Indeed, we don't want unequivocally to throw out the knowledge we have that historical subjects did not have. That is, we indulge in a form of presentism, and go beyond contextualism.

Although reproving individuals who belittle the Fathers, Bailyn nonetheless argues that we can approach slavery "objectively and impersonally, but only up to a point." We are inevitably ethically and non-rationally involved. In a problematic discussion of the slave trade, Bailyn contends that the historian cannot escape feelings about slavery that tend to the "immediately urgent [and] emotional, unconstrained by the critical apparatus of scholarship." Slavery "tears at our conscience and shocks our sense of decency."

Bailyn's distress shows the limits of his complaints about the way his former apprentices moralize over slavery. Moreover, my related complaints about the deficiencies of the new survey course do not entirely persuade even me: racist greed was endemic and growingly institutionalized. But non-emeritus teachers need still to reflect on their own abstract condemnation of the white leaders who settled the United States, and the crab-like skitter in the progress of historical interpretation.

Bruce Kuklick is Nichols Professor of American History, Emeritus, at the University of Pennsylvania.

Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
  keithhamblen | Nov 23, 2015 |
From one of the most respected historians in America, twice the winner of the Pulitzer Prize, a new collection of essays that reflects a lifetime of erudition and accomplishments in history.

The past has always been elusive: How can we understand people whose worlds were utterly different from our own without imposing our own standards and hindsight? What did things feel like in the moment, when outcomes were uncertain? How can we recover those uncertainties? What kind of imagination goes into the writing of transformative history? Are there latent trends that distinguish the kinds of history we now write? How unique was North America among the far-flung peripheries of the early British empire?

As Bernard Bailyn argues in this elegant, deeply informed collection of essays, history always combines approximations based on incomplete data with empathic imagination, interweaving strands of knowledge into a narrative that also explains. This is a stirring and insightful work drawing on the wisdom and perspective of a career spanning more than five decades—a book that will appeal to anyone interested in history.

From the Hardcover edition.

Review

Advance praise for Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History:

“Dedicated to understanding the English-speaking world in the colonial era . . . The nine essays in this volume, written at various moments in Bailyn’s career, show the author at the top of his game, deeply immersed in his specific area of inquiry but also contemplating broader questions about historiography and the goals of historical inquiry.” —Brendan Driscoll, Booklist

Further critical acclaim for Bernard Bailyn and his work:

“For approximately half a century, Bailyn has been the country’s most distinguished and influential scholar of the Revolution . . . It is no exaggeration to say that his influence on what the nation knows about its beginnings is immense, if incalculable.” —Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post Book World

“One of America’s most discerning historians. His thinking is subtle. His style is forceful . . . Throughout [To Begin the World Anew] he retains a sense of wonder that those men in a clump of distant British provinces could have wrought a political system, a view of the world, that is so imaginative and enduring.” —Anthony Day, Los Angeles Times

“[Bailyn’s] fusions—of the general and the particular, of the abstract and the concrete, of thought and feeling— are the ideal of modern historical writing.” —Naomi Bliven, The New Yorker (on Voyagers to the West)

“If we are lucky, we will have our times analyzed by a historian with the intellectual and literary skills of Bernard Bailyn, who in The Barbarous Years provides a highly detailed and meticulously researched account of the first great stage of England’s dominion over North America . . . The Barbarous Years [is] a cornucopia of human folly, mischief and intrigue.” —James A. Percoco, The Washington Independent Review of Books

“[The Barbarous Years is] simply magisterial: sweeping, authoritative, commanding. But it is that and so much more. It has rare scholarly warmth, an understanding of how to be nimble with the material, to be an entertainer as well as a teacher.” —Peter Lewis, The Christian Science Monitor

About the Author

BERNARD BAILYN is Adams University Professor and James Duncan Phillips Professor of Early American History Emeritus at Harvard University. He founded, and for many years directed, the International Seminar on the History of the Atlantic World, which helped to reorient the study of the Atlantic region in the early modern era. His previous books include The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, which received the Pulitzer and Bancroft Prizes in 1968; The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson, which won the 1975 National Book Award for History; Voyagers to the West, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987; Atlantic History: Concept and Contours; and The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600–1675.
  GalenWiley | Apr 13, 2015 |
Much of the discussion I've seen so far about Bernard Bailyn's new collection, Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History (Knopf, 2015) has centered around Gordon Wood's Weekly Standard review of the book, "History in Context." I read that, and much of the ensuing discussion, and I wanted all the more to read Bailyn's essays themselves.

Of the nine pieces collected here, eight began as lectures, a point I think worth emphasizing, as is the fact that they range in delivery date from 1954 to 2007. Bailyn notes in the preface that the connecting threads between the essays are these: "the problems and nature of history as a craft, at times an art, and aspects of the history of the colonial peripheries of the early British empire" (ix). Certainly a key sub-thread, if you will, is the importance of historical context, which comes up repeatedly, and in several of the essays Bailyn focuses on the use of new historical methodologies (some of which at this point seem anything but), which he embraces but with the caveat that "we must all still be storytellers, narrators—though of events lodged deep in their natural contexts" (52).

Bailyn recognizes what some see as a difficulty: "to explain contextually is, implicitly at least, to excuse" (38). "The problems in this kind of [contextual] history, in my view the deepest history, are difficulty and subtle, and they create great demands on historians: to suspend their present commitments sufficiently to enter different worlds, to broaden their sympathies for people not only distant but alien from themselves, to respond sensitively to apparent anomalies that lead into unsuspected complexities, to distinguish consequences from intentions, and yet to do all that while retaining both the capacity for moral judgments that do not warp the narrative and the conviction that change, growth, decline—evanescence—is what history is all about" (51).

Context is key, and Bailyn, several of whose own books have been—justly—criticized for failing to fully explore the contexts of their narrative arguments, writes strongly in its favor here. He also argues, in the opening essay (originally delivered at a conference to mark the launch of the DuBois Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database) for the importance of history and memory as complementary forces, which I quite like: "The one may usefully constrain and yet vivify the other. The passionate, timeless memory of the slave trade that tears at our conscience and shocks our sense of decency may be shaped, focused, and informed by the critical history we write, while the history we so carefully compose may be kept alive, made vivid and constantly relevant and urgent, by the living memory we have of it. We cannot afford to lose or diminish either if we are to understand who we are and how we got to be the way we are" (17).

In the fourth essay, the 1985 Lewin Lecture Bailyn highlights several historians whose work he found particularly creative, who had what he calls the "capacity to conceive of a hitherto unglimpsed world, or of a world only vaguely or imperfectly seen before" (89). While any of us would come up with a different list, it is difficult to take issue with Bailyn's formulation that writers of creative history must have "the capacity to project, like a novelist, a nonexistent, an impalpable world in all its living comprehension, and yet to do this within the constraints of verifiable facts" (94).

While a couple of these essays weren't of all that much personal interest, the sixth, delivered as the Baron Lecture at AAS, proved fascinating. Bailyn used the opportunity to revisit his book The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson, re-evaluating the work more than thirty years on. Here he even calls himself out, wishing that he had embraced and understood a broader context more clearly so that he might have better understood Hutchinson's actions.

By and large, these pieces do make for very interesting reading, and they have little at all to do with the topics covered in Wood's review, which mostly focuses on criticisms of Bailyn's other works. The object lessons Bailyn offers in the importance of understanding context, the desirability of good storytelling, and the complementarity of history and memory, &c., are hardly anything anyone would take issue with. That said, I do wish that a bit more had been done by way of introducing these essays in their own proper contexts, and in engaging with subsequent scholarship and argument in the areas covered: there is some of this at the end of the notes for certain essays, but more would not have gone amiss, and it would be fascinating to know what Bailyn thinks of the changes in scholarship that have occurred since these essays were originally delivered.

Well worth a read for anyone interested in the historian's craft, even granting that some of these seem rather dated now and may not seem quite as relevant as others. ( )
1 vote JBD1 | Mar 4, 2015 |
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"The past has always been elusive: how can we understand people whose worlds were utterly different from our own without imposing our own standards and hindsight? What did things feel like in the moment when outcomes were uncertain? How can we recover the uncertainties of the past, before the outcomes were known? What kind of imagination goes into the writing of transformative history? Are there latent trends that distinguish the kinds of history we now write? How unique was North America among the far-flung peripheries of the early British empire?" --From publisher's website.… (more)

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