Book Review: Sometimes An Art

Sometimes An Art:  Nine Essays On History, by Bernard Bailyn

When I was an undergraduate student taking a course on historiography, there was one sense in which I was like all of my other classmates.  We were presented with a choice as to whether we would defend history as an art or as a science.  Everyone I talked to, and I made it an effort to discuss the matter widely, chose to view history as an art.  Now, at the time I was a civil engineering student, and nothing in my professional career has made me less fond of quantitative analysis, which I have spent a great deal of my own life involved in, but I am still prone to view history as an art [1].  This book, written by someone who like me is fond of a great deal of quantitative history, nevertheless gives a strong defense of history as an art by dealing with the craft of history, providing a set of thoughtful and related essays that combine together to present a worthwhile introduction to the author’s work as a whole.  This is the sort of work that gives highly quotable [2] and bite-sized servings of the author’s work as a way of encouraging the reader to look more into his material.

In terms of its structure, the nine essays of this work are divided into two parts and take up about 260 pages of material in total, making this a very reasonably sized book for most readers of history.  The first part of the book contains five essays on history and the struggle to get it right, first looking at the importance of data in better understanding the slave trade, then examining the importance of context in history (a favorite study of mine), an examination of three trends in modern history (the importance of data in providing the context of historical events, a greater cross-fertilization of disciplines to show influence, and the search for knowledge in interior and subjective aspects of history), and a sympathetic look at the American loyalists, among whom was at least one of my ancestors.  The second part of the book contains four essays that deal with the provincial aspects of the American founders, including a retrospective look at the ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson, the last royal governor of Massachusetts, a comparative analysis of Scotland and America as England’s cultural provinces, co-authored with John Clive, an examination of how the peripheries of the British world were peopled, and a discussion of perfectionism in the context of American history.  At least as far as I am concerned, these are excellent essays and it is immensely worthwhile to read them here.

In terms of the overall structure of this book, it is apparent that this is a mosaic book, not a large and sustained one.  At this stage in the author’s life and career, though, anything he releases is likely to be worth reading, and he has earned the right to capitalize off of his well-earned reputation as a seminal historian of the Atlantic world to release late-career collections of essays for critical acclaim and the approval of discerning audiences.  I will certainly not begrudge him that profit, and this book further confirmed my own interest in reading as much by this author as I can, given that this is the third book I have read by him and all have been very excellent so far.  If you like reading thoughtful discussions of the American founding and gracious comments about its implications for other areas, including the founding of Australia, and you want to see the author’s work in small packages for appreciative audiences, this is a worthwhile book to read that will whet the appetite for more substantial material.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

“In politics he was active, bold, and forthright, but never a mean-spirited, vituperative, vengeful antagonist; his speeches, memos, letters, and formal pronouncements were logical, rational, and cogent. His aim in politics was to keep the peace, maintain the received structure of authority, and enforce the law in accepted, traditional ways. The Puritan values of self-restraint, personal morality, worldly asceticism, and above all, stubborn insistence on pursuing the truth however unpopular or dangerous it might be to do so were essential parts of his personality. He was acquisitive, but not ostentatious; eager for public office–for his family as much as for himself–but careful not to overstep the accepted bounds of law and custom. Though more dutiful than colorful and in appearance unimpressive–a contemporary described him as “tall, thin, half-starved”–he was intelligent, well informed, well-educated, and capable of clear exposition, with a writer’s instinct to resolve and objectify his experience by writing about it, if not with Jefferson’s lyrical flow than with Madison’s concision and accuracy of phrasing. In this sense his life was surprisingly contemplative (150-151).”

“From his embattled position in the defense of a liberal alternative to totalitarianism, the enemy was ideological perfectionism, the passionate pursuit of which he took to be the driving force behind the twentieth century’s tyrannies. No one knew better than Berlin or expressed more brilliantly the genealogy and structure of perfectionist ideas. But their threat to civilization, in the most general terms, lay not in their intrinsic malevolence but in the brutality of those who implacably imposed them: the populist thugs, the fanatical monopolists of power–beings alien to Berlin’s sensibilities, incomprehensible to his humanely inquiring mind (260).”

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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