The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History

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The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History

By Gordon S. Wood
Penguin Press, 2008
336 pp. $25.95
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This collection of review essays by one of the United States' most well-read and most readable historians is at once a review of 20 years of disputes and contentions in American historiography and a defense of the discipline of history that is both subtle and forthright. Wood's review essays, most of which originally appeared in The New York Review of Books and The New Republic, cover works by some of the most notable (as well as the most controversial) contemporary scholars of U.S. history. The essays are generous even when they are devastating; they are literate and provocative and in most cases as fresh and relevant now as when they were written. Without casting aspersions on those political scientists and cultural critics who mine the past for the purpose of illuminating or critiquing the present, Wood wants to stand up for those historians who seek, so far as it is possible, to understand the past on its own terms. Although skeptical of many trends among historians, Wood recognizes the substantial contributions that the last generation of historians, focused largely on ethnic, gender, and cultural studies, have made to our understanding of the American past.