Book Review: On The Teaching And Writing Of History

On The Teaching & Writing Of History:  Responses To A Series Of Questions, by Bernard Bailyn

This pleasant and modest work of about 100 pages contains a series of questions and answers where Bailyn expresses his own thoughts about the craft of history [1].  I came across the book largely because I am a fairly voracious reader of everything I can find written by Bernard Bailyn.  As he is a somewhat prolific writer is it not hard to find a diverse mixture of writings by the author, some of them meditations of the art of writing and teaching history (as this one is), some of them pioneering works in Atlantic history or quantitative history, and others patient discussions about or editions of primary source material for other historians to read and use in their own research.  Clearly, if anyone is competent to talk about the teaching and writing of history it is someone who has done it at the highest level over the course of decades, and this book does not disappoint.  If you are a fan of Bailyn’s work, this book will not be too demanding of a read, and for someone who wants to hear about history from the point of view of someone who is a historian of complex interests, this book will likely be enjoyable as well.

This book is not divided into chapters, but is rather based on a transcript of two tape-recorded conversations that Bailyn had with two other professors from Dartmouth during his period as a residence there in 1991.  Speaking personally, I would like to get to the level where my conversations with other people are typed up and turned into books.  Writing books is hard work, but having conversations is easy, especially if you are dealing with people as insightful as the people involved in this book.  The questions flow easily from one to another and Bailyn’s answers are insightful and filled with his customary knowledge of source material and his graciousness to others.  The reader even learns a good deal about Bailyn’s own historical background, including his collaborations with his wife and his struggles with technology in an early “naive” example of computational history in his research of colonial merchants.  Bailyn handles the tensions of the study of history well, understanding the need to be familiar with source material and also to ask important questions and strive to answer them to the best of one’s ability even if one cannot do so perfectly because of the blinders of our own perspective and the lack of historical information about questions we may be interested in.

And it is this element that I find most interesting about the book.  Bailyn shows himself to ask questions of the past that sources of the past often do not mention.  For example, Bailyn’s concern with sanitation practices in the past appears not to be something that many people have written about, and it is very possible that people in the future will wonder about certain aspects of our own existence that we simply do not think to record, perhaps because we do not notice it or reflect upon it ourselves.  Bailyn’s sensitivity to the context of the past allows him to express concern about the way we will be viewed in the future who will find our own motives and behavior as odd and incomprehensible as we find that of previous generations.  The author’s attempts at finding a common ground and establishing empathy with the past–perhaps most notable in his well-known work on the loyalist Thomas Hutchinson–is something that comes of well.  If you are looking at a short and informal but insightful reflection on the art of writing and teaching history, this is definitely a worthwhile and enjoyable book on the subject.

[1] See, for example:

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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6 Responses to Book Review: On The Teaching And Writing Of History

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal | Edge Induced Cohesion

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