The brilliance of a master historian shines through this “elegant and engaging memoir” of a lifetime’s work (Richard Aldous, Wall Street Journal).
Over a remarkable career Bernard Bailyn has reshaped our understanding of the early American past. Inscribing his superb scholarship with passion and imagination honed by a commitment to rigor, Bailyn captures the particularity of the past and its broad significance in precise, elegant prose. His transformative work has ranged from a new reckoning with the ideology that powered the opposition to British authority in the American Revolution, to a sweeping account of the peopling of America, and the critical nurturing of a new field, the history of the Atlantic world.
Illuminating History is the most personal of Bailyn’s works. It is in part an intellectual memoir of the significant turns in an immensely productive and influential scholarly career. It is also alive with people whose actions touched the long arc of history. Among the dramatic human stories that command our attention: a struggling Boston merchant tormented by the tensions between capitalist avarice and a constrictive Puritan piety; an ordinary shopkeeper who in a unique way feverishly condemned British authority as corrupt and unworthy of public confidence; a charismatic German Pietist who founded a cloister in the Pennsylvania wilderness famous for its strange theosophy, its spartan lifestyle, and its rich musical and artistic achievement. And the good townspeople of Petersham, whose response in 1780 to a draft Massachusetts constitution speaks directly to us through a moving insistence on individual freedoms in the face of an imposing central authority. Here is vivid history and an illuminating self-portrait from one of the most eminent historians of our time.
Harvard University professor emeritus Bailyn (The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution) highlights "small, strange, obscure, but illuminating documents or individuals" he encountered while researching other, larger projects in this hodgepodge of a book. Successful chapters, including the close reading of a will left by a Puritan merchant and an overview of changing interpretations of 17th-century census records, showcase the creativity inherent in the study of history and the conversational nature of scholarship, illustrating Bailyn's belief that "the historical imagination must be closely bounded by the documentation." Unfortunately, no effort is made to connect the individual documents and historical figures (which also include an index of colonial newspapers and the religious sect leader who inspired Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus) to each other, and as the book progresses, the law of diminishing returns sets in. One chapter catalogues topics discussed at a series of seminars on Atlantic history; the book's epilogue consists largely of extended excerpts from previous publications. Though readers may glimpse the masterly scholarship and clear writing that distinguish Bailyn's work, the book's inconsistency and lack of an overarching thesis lead to a disappointing result. History buffs will be left hoping for a more substantial account of Bailyn's life and career.