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Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn takes a long look back in ‘Illuminating History: A Retrospective of Seven Decades’

Bernard Bailyn, Adams University Professor Emeritus at Harvard, pictured in 1991.
Bernard Bailyn, Adams University Professor Emeritus at Harvard, pictured in 1991.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff (custom credit)/David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

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.

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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.

The introduction gives us Bailyn at his most personal, reflecting on his education. Imbued with a love of literature, he majored in English at Williams College. But in researching a thesis on the 18th-century British novelist Laurence Sterne, he found himself drawn primarily to the historical backdrop, “the provincialism of Sterne’s Ireland and Yorkshire and the sophisticated social and cultural world he found in metropolitan England, and how the two related.”

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After an Army stint that immersed him in German language and culture, he earned a doctorate from Harvard in history. His many notable books in the decades since include “The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution;” “The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson,” a biography of Massachusetts’s Loyalist governor; and “Voyagers to the West,” an account of the early settlement of America.

In an essay on “Puritanism’s double bind,” Bailyn explains that his focus was on neither theology nor literary influences, but “the relation of the Puritans’ ideas and beliefs…to the history of economic growth.” In that context, he offers a close reading of an extraordinarily prolix, 48,000-word will penned by the Puritan merchant Robert Keayne, whose life was riddled with minor controversies.

An “avaricious but profoundly pious tradesman,” Keayne sought both to justify his behavior and micromanage the dispersal of his assets in an uncertain future. Noting the merchant’s deviations from Puritan orthodoxy, Bailyn makes the provocative point that the religion, with its fierce core tenet of Calvinist predestination, was really “an unstable cluster of associated beliefs that sent out sparks in all directions….”

In another essay, Bailyn leads us through hairpin turns in the understanding of early modern family life. Central to the discussion is Peter Laslett, a University of Cambridge historian who initially described families in 17th-century England as patriarchal, stable, and multigenerational. Bailyn relied on Laslett’s paradigm in his 1960 study, “Education in the Forming of American Society.”

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“Then something unexpected happened, which turned the story around,” Bailyn writes. Stumbling on two 17th-century English parish censuses, Laslett observed that the families were nuclear rather than extended, while the village population as a whole was more mobile and variable than he had expected.

A comprehensive, crowdsourced search of other European parish records seemed to confirm this view. Then another obscure census discovery, by the German graduate student Lutz Berkner, further complicated the picture. Berkner’s research suggested that early modern families passed through developmental cycles, with household structure morphing over time in relation to both age and economic factors.

“Families are dynamic organisms whose structures change with changing circumstances,” Bailyn concludes. So, too, history, impelled by novel discoveries and interpretive leaps, continues to mutate.

The book’s remaining essays probe “the penetration of revolutionary thought” in colonial America; Johann Conrad Beissel’s establishment of the ascetic, utopian, musically rich Ephrata Cloister in Pennsylvania; and the rise of so-called Atlantic History, catalyzed by Bailyn’s own Atlantic History Seminar. An appendix offers finely wrought biographical homages to two singular Harvard scholars, Samuel Eliot Morison and Oscar Handlin.

In the end, “Illuminating History” is not so much a fully satisfying intellectual repast as a series of historiographical amuses-bouche. Its main value lies in whetting the appetite for a richer diet of the works of a great American historian.

Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, has been a two-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.

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Illuminating History: A Retrospective of Seven Decades

Bernard Bailyn

W.W. Norton & Company, 288 pages, $28.95