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Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History
Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History
Bernard Bailyn
Knopf, 2015
320 pp., $28.00

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Bruce Kuklick


How to Write History

Bernard Bailyn's prescriptions.

Bernard Bailyn survives as the only member of the group of American historians who last commanded more than professional attention, and who wrote with authority not just for the Organization of American Historians but for a public that now hungers after serious history. This elite included Bailyn's peer Edmund Morgan, and C. Vann Woodward and Richard Hofstadter. Sometimes an Art, a collection of essays that Bailyn has selected to represent his concerns at the end of an extended career, has in fact an elegiac dimension.

Long emeritus at Harvard, Bailyn wrote these essays over fifty years. The earliest dates from 1954, the most recent from 2007, although the center of gravity rests in the 1980s with work now some three decades old. Two of the compositions appear for the first time, and a few have had some minor updating although most have been printed here as they were initially published. Read in an appropriate order, the essays show Bailyn's evolution from a biographer and political historian of the American Revolution to an expert on England's trans-oceanic diaspora from 1500 to 1800. All nine items can be read with interest, more than interest; and for an amateur, as I am in history before the 18th century, they illuminate despite their age, and despite what Bailyn calls their "occasional" nature. The illumination stems from Bailyn's sweep and scope, and his stunning and lucid prose. The title of the book also suggests an underlying theme: Bailyn explores the assumptions that undergird historical accounts, as well as giving us accounts of the Atlantic past.

What about the Atlantic past?

Colonial America was what you used to study in the first-half of the US history survey at college—"America to the Civil War." The course concentrated on underclassmen's appreciation of the Revolution and the Constitution. This history has metamorphosed to investigations of "the Atlantic world" from the 16th to the early ...

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