Sometimes An Art: Nine Essays on History

Sometimes An Art: Nine Essays on History
Bernard Bailyn
Alfred A. Knopf   308pp   £22.50

These essays by the pre-eminent interpreter of the American Revolution deal in equal measure with the impassioned perspectives that animate the creative enterprise of historians; and with the nature and consequences of the peopling of America and the antipodes by English, Scottish and Irish mariners and merchants, entrepreneurs and exiles, cast-offs and visionaries, bond-servants and African slaves. Three are new, three recent, three from the 1980s and 1990s. They are history at its best, breathtaking in sweep, awesome in discernment, unrivalled in delineation, contextual comprehension and empathetic portrayal of peoples and places past – realms glimpsed previously only hazily, if at all, through lenses occluded by bias and presentism. 

No work could better inspire attachment to history, awareness of its dilemmas and appreciation of its practitioners than this all-too-brief and beautifully crafted volume. Couched within a vividly storied framework, it explains and exemplifies what makes history both narrative and analysis, eye-witnessing and hindsight, tragedy and farce, truth and error. 

Space confines me to only two of Bailyn’s compelling insights. One is the overriding need to remember, amid the din of mantras that extol continuity with precursors, and cocooned by what Michael Baxandall called the false carapace of seeming familiarity with iconic exemplars, how utterly different the past really was. This is ipso facto so because we know, as those who lived in it could not, how things would turn out, and we cannot divest ourselves of that knowledge. ‘Can we really be fair to men of the past’, wondered a historian of Tudor England, ‘knowing what they could not know? Can we, indeed, understand them at all . . . with our minds prepossessed by [knowing] the result?’ Dealing with that conundrum, Bailyn stresses the everyday realities – alien to us – that saturated those in the past:

We can have little notion of what were commonplaces to themof clothing that itched, of shoes that tore the feet, of lice, fleas, and vermin; the ubiquity of filth in public places; the constant expectation of incomprehensible illnesses and sudden death; the sense of the reality, urgency and plenitude of animist forces; the absence or scarcity of print; the slow pace of communication and travel; the assumption of utterly unbridgeable social distances, distances so great as to stimulate awe, not envy. Those ordinary circumstances of life are almost completely unrecoverable precisely because they were so unremarkable, hence unremarked. 

Likewise remote is much that was once compellingly apparent, as Thomas Carlyle wrote in 1845 of earlier English zealotry:

Overwhelmed under … the wreck and dead ashes of some six unbelieving generations, does the Age of Cromwell and his Puritans lie hidden from us. Our common spiritual notions … are fatal to a right understanding of the Seventeenth Century. The Christian Doctrines which then dwelt alive in every heart, have now … died out of all hearts … The Age of the Puritans is not extinct only and gone away from us; … it is grown unintelligible.

How arduous this makes Bailyn’s related imperative to understand the past in its own context! Extolling four precursors – Perry Miller on Puritan New England, Charles McLean Andrews on 18th-century Anglo-American administrative institutions, Lewis Namier on the entwined intimacies of British parliamentarians, Ronald Syme on political elites in the Roman republic and early empire – Bailyn suggests they shared three magisterial skills. One was the determination to so immerse themselves in the past that they could remove previous historians’ anachronistic overlays and falsifications without imposing their own. A second was the mastery of new-found or hitherto neglected contextual data. A third was the deployment of key phrases, key figures, key events to clarify essential relationships. Finally, their emotional involvement in their discovered realms made possible their imaginative grasp of the historical whole. As with Bailyn himself,  vicarious but inescapable memory enlivened their analytic histories. ‘The passionate, timeless memory of the slave trade that tears at our conscience and shocks our sense of decency may be shaped, focused and informed by the critical history we write’, concludes Bailyn, ‘while the history we so carefully compose may be kept alive, made vivid and constantly relevant and urgent by the living memory we have of it.’ 

David Lowenthal is currently working on the proofs of a new edition of his classic book, The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge, 1985).

Get Miscellanies, our free weekly long read, in your inbox every week