Harvard Historian Bernard Bailyn Takes a Long Look Back in ‘Illuminating History: A Retrospective of Seven Decades’Historians in the News
To Bernard Bailyn, Adams University Professor Emeritus at Harvard, history involves storytelling, and historians, like novelists, should aim to depict a coherent world. But the historian, of course, must obey constraints that the writer of fiction naturally ignores.
“History is an imaginative construction…,” Bailyn writes, “but the historical imagination must be closely bounded by the documentation — limited by the evidence that has survived, and limited too by the historian’s obligation to be consistent with what has previously been established.”
This is Bailyn, precise as always, quoting his own past writings in the epilogue of “Illuminating History: A Retrospective of Seven Decades.” The book’s subtitle refers to the 97-year-old historian’s years as an eminent practitioner of his craft, a span during which he won two Pulitzer Prizes, a National Book Award, the Bancroft Prize, and countless other honors.
The book’s blurb billing it as a “self-portrait” is somewhat misleading. “Illuminating History” is not an intellectual memoir, but rather a miscellany — a collection of sometimes fascinating, often arcane historical essays, written in Bailyn’s elegant but orotund style.
“Organized around a succession of…small, strange, obscure, but illuminating documents or individuals,” as Bailyn puts it, they footnote larger stories that he has told elsewhere. Collectively, they show how this historian of early America practices his discipline, and, more generally, how historical narratives are constructed and revised. The most striking takeaway is how much may depend on the random discovery of a single document — how one clue, backed by other evidence, can turn longstanding interpretations on their head.
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