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book review

‘Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History’ by Bernard Bailyn

The author has reconsidered Thomas Hutchinson, last royal governor of Massachusetts.
The author has reconsidered Thomas Hutchinson, last royal governor of Massachusetts.

Academic historians may not be celebrities in the mold of David McCullough or Michael Beschloss, but a handful nonetheless are brand names. And there is none shinier than that of Bernard Bailyn, who six decades ago began teaching at Harvard and holds the formidable title of Adams university professor and James Duncan Phillips professor of early American history emeritus, and who this very month, at age 92, puts another book on his groaning shelf.

This one is called “Sometimes an Art,’’ and in the nine essays on history between its covers he ranges widely, but mostly deals with the challenges of the historian, the subtle interstices and intersections among and between historical events, and the search for the profession’s greatest prize: context.

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For the contents of this spare book, erudite yet approachable, are mostly about context. Bailyn seems to be telling us that more so than the assembling of facts and evidence, the fitting of facts and evidence into context is what makes history, to borrow the book’s title, sometimes an art.

“[O]ne of the central problems in the contemporary practice of history . . . [involves] recovering the contexts in which events take place: the settings, the unspoken assumptions, the perceptual universes of the participants,’’ Bailyn writes. “The past is a different world, and we seek to understand it as it actually was.’’

And, Bailyn argues, in different times and places the unremarked-upon circumstances of life are difficult to reconstruct, in part because they generally are, well, unremarked upon. That may seem like circular logic, but in truth it is a straight line into the heart of the historical arts.

Plus there is this unavoidable problem facing the historian: “The fact — the inescapable fact — is that we know how it all came out, and [contemporaries] did not.’’

All of this is very complex. If, for example, historians accurately describe the living conditions and attitudes of an age, they often miss the larger forces for change at work in that age — in short, the forces that provide the dynamics of history.

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“For,’’ Bailyn writes, “the disturbing elements, the disequalibrating forces, the motives for change, are necessarily subordinated in any situation one describes in depth, since it is the stable — that is, the dominant — elements that are most relevant to the effort at hand.’’

Indeed, one of the themes of this volume, which ranges from Colonial America to Australia, from Paris to Peru, and from the practical political outlook of the last royal governor of Massachusetts to utopian and perfectionist movements, is what is missing from history — or, more precisely, what historians have missed.

Until the beginning of the last century, Bailyn argues, most of history, or historical writing, concentrated on what was known at the time — “headline events,’’ as he describes them. But history has expanded — or at least historians have expanded their outlooks. As a result, historians now more frequently examine what Bailyn calls “latent events,’’ which he describes as developments that contemporaries “did not consciously struggle over, however much they might have been forced unwittingly to grapple with their consequences.’’

In these essays, Bailyn also examines how disparate events in far-flung parts of the globe often are tied together — British efforts to restrict settlement beyond the Appalachians, for example, and the fear of British landlords that their Irish properties might be de-populated.

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He also examines how the study of the prevailing zeitgeist of a people or a time has added richness to our historical understanding. That includes “the assumptions, attitudes, fears, expectations, and aspirations that together formed people’s private construction of the world, their personal map of reality, their private ordering of life, the meaning they imposed on the stream of experience.’’

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of this book is Bailyn’s reconsideration of Thomas Hutchinson, the last royal governor of Massachusetts. Bailyn won the 1975 National Book Award for history for his biography of the man he describes as ‘’the greatest loser in the [American] Revolution.’’

He was drawn to Hutchinson originally because he was intrigued by what he called “the bitter, vicious, vilification of Hutchinson by the Founders.’’ Besides, as the country approached its bicentennial, he believed Americans were “in a position to recover the uncertainties of the people of the time, who, unlike ourselves, did not know what their future would be — for whom, therefore, risk-taking was the key to everything they did.’’

Decades later, Bailyn saw Hutchinson and his opponents in a different context: as a significant player in a far broader cultural and political upheaval that went far beyond Boston Harbor.

“There is,’’ Bailyn now believes, “a much larger history of which Hutchinson’s ordeal is a part, a broader context in which to locate his efforts, achievements and failure.’’

That brings Bailyn full circle. The man who won two Pulitzer Prizes, who was one of the pioneers of the notion of Atlantic history, and whose protégés have reshaped early American history (and won three Pulitzers themselves), has examined his own world and work — and struggled to put both in context. For Bailyn, a tour guide to the perils and possibility of historical writing, it is context über alles.

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David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette.com.