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

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

Gordon S. Wood, . . Penguin Press, $25.95 (323pp) ISBN 978-1-59420-154-7

The subtitle of this latest offering from Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Wood (The Radicalism of the American Revolution ) is far grander than what he delivers between the covers: a collection of 21 book reviews of works by Simon Schama, Theodore Draper and Joyce Appleby, among others, written over the past three decades for periodicals like the New York Review of Books and the New Republic . Though reviews are occasional pieces not designed to be republished years later, some of Wood's pieces make enduring points. He lambastes scholars who clutter their writing with unintelligible jargon, and he worries that today's historical scholarship, too driven by present concerns, fails to retain a sense of how the past really is different. He makes clear that he prefers old-fashioned political history to cultural history that draws on postmodern theory. Indeed, the book is maddeningly repetitive: Wood invokes Peter Novick's This Noble Dream over and over, though not as often as he laments the use of theory in cultural history and the “radical Foucault-like agendas” that seem to drive certain literary historians. This volume is not without merit, but rather than appending a short afterword to each review, Wood would have done better to craft a new, unified reflection on the discipline of history. (Mar. 17)