Sometimes a Math? Bernard Bailyn is a man with an amazing career as a scholar, professor and author and, at 92 years old, is still active in these fields. I first encountered his work in a class on the American Revolution my senior year of college. He is the author of The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, a Pulitzer Prize winning work that I once wrote a mediocre paper about. My assignment was to compare it to David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing. I remember liking Fischer’s book better and even went as far as saying it was a more effective and stronger interpretation of the American Revolution.
Looking back, I feel Bailyn’s work was stronger. I think that I just found it dry and a little too challenging. It now sticks out in my memory as one of the first really challenging texts that really made me think critically about an important time in our nation’s history. But man was it dry.
Thankfully, Sometimes an Art: Nine Essays on History was very readable. May was a broad topic for my challenge, Nonfiction/History. There are a good deal of important Nonfiction books I could have read, but when I saw Bernard Bailyn had a new book, about History as an Art no less, my nostalgia for college kicked in and I had to pick it up.
Before we get into the ever-long debate of what makes art, art, and how History fits in to that subject, let me give a quick summary of each of the nine essays.
- Considering the Slave Trade: History and Memory: This essay was written about the Du Bois Trans-Atlantic Databse held in Williamsburg, VA in 1998. Bailyn examines the impact that amassing such a large amount of information, statistics and numbers related to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade has in terms of a historical narrative. He concludes that new information can be gleaned from such a collection and that even though it may tear at our hearts, putting such a dark chapter of human history in perspective makes our understanding both stronger and more enlightened.
- Context in History: Bailyn’s second essay touches on a topic that my professors always touched on; that is, how to keep history in context. Meaning that we may think of parts of history or historical figures with all of our current knowledge, but men and women of the past did not have our wealth of historical context. This can manifest itself in various ways, such as concluding a general was stupid and a poor tactician for a tactical blunder. Keeping history in context means that we now know that his tactics did not work because, of course, the army suffered a defeat, but placing oneself in the context of the day, historians must ask: did the plan make sense then? Can we call the founding fathers racist for not abolishing slavery in the constitution, or did it make more sense for in the context of the day for a fledgling nation made up of states to not drive a rift between itself? Myabe the answer is yes, but without contextualizing, the historian loses a stronger conclusion. Bailyn notes of the difficulties of context on our conscience, “to try an explain [the reasons] seems to be an attempt to excuse them.” A wonderful essay on the difficulties of weighing the historian’s conscience with truly analyzing history, the book gets its name from Bailyn’s description of History as “never a science, sometimes an art, essentially a craft…”
- Three Trends in Modern History: Bailyn examines, as the title suggests, three trends in history that are shaping the direction the discipline is heading. They are Quantitative History, or how access to more data widens our perception of history, Spatial Relationships, or how modern historians can share data and ideas faster than ever, and a developing focus on the private lives of historical subjects, both large figures and the general populations of any period in history, and how the small things, attitudes, fears, expectations and the like, shaped their lives and, in turn, history.
- History in Creative Imagination: Bailyn breaks this down very simply in the second paragraph, “What is creativity in history?” The essay mainly focuses on creative ways in which historians are now researching and writing about history. Bailyn uses this to discuss a few historians in particular and the ways in which they have injected history with imagination, one way in particular being the treatment of History like writing a piece of fiction, which I found very interesting. But for all his insight, I feel that Bailyn’s examples really don’t highlight the ways in which history can be creative. He basically boils it down those who have the imagination to put History in context and those who just find the facts.
- The Losers: This is a well written, very interesting discussion of those who stayed loyal to the British Crown during and after the American Revolutionary War. Bailyn again attempts to contextualize these men and women. He notes that it is easy, looking back as do from the ‘winners’ perspective, to look down on the Loyalists as misguided and even stupid for supporting the British. In context, however, their reasons are not so black and white and must be examined as those who lived during the war would have done. One of the better essays in the collection, Bailyn is at his finest when writing on the subject of the American Revolutionary War.
- Thomas Hutchinson in Context: Much like the last essay, Bailyn examines one of the most notorious Loyalists of the American Revolution; Thomas Hutchinson. An interesting topic, but a slow moving piece that lacks resolution.
- Enlgand’s Cultural Provinces: A fascinating look at the parallels between Scotland and the United States as they grew under, and in the USA’s case, away from British rule. Bailyn mostly examines just how the colonists in the Americas came to revolution and how Scotland, so similar to the USA, did not.
- Peopling the Peripheries: This was a very engaging essay, but pretty straightforward. Bailyn, on the occasion of Australia’s Bicentennial, discusses the history and historiography by comparing and contrasting it with history and historiography in the Americas.
- The Search for Perfection: The last essay in the collection is not as interesting as the others, but still well done. A tribute and discussion surrounding the late Isaiah Berlin and his influence over his students at Harvard, how he looked at America’s early colonization and the impact it has had on the modern world, particularly in the Middle East.
There remain two big questions here: one, does Bailyn make a case for History as an Art. And two: was this book worth reading?
Before we can answer question number one, we must figure out, what is art? The simplest answer I can give is that Art imitates life. But then the voices of my friends who are prone to philosophical over-arguing pop into my head and start a debate that I really don’t want to have in real life, let alone in my head. The definition of art is not that simple, I know, and I often find myself watching or listening to something that makes me think, “my god this is terrible, this isn’t art.”
Well guess what? It usually is.
The problem is that a case can be made for pretty much anything being art.
But Andy! I hear you scream, that’s not true. What about Math? Math isn’t an art!
What If I write 2 +4=6. Was that art? What if I write it in rainbow colors and frame it? What If I make it a speech bubble coming from George Bush’s mouth (either Bush, take your pick). Is it still just Math? Is it art at all?
My point here is that Art really is a debate. And, in my opinion, anything that becomes debated art becomes art.
Bernard Bailyn’s collection isn’t called Always an Art for a reason. He is smart enough to know that, as a discipline, History is not inherently an art. But sometimes, it can be. Not only does Bailyn’s second and fourth essays debate this well, but the book itself is an illustration of this. In well written, well collected prose, Bailyn demonstrates that this book itself is an art.
More than that, his two essays clearly demonstrate that sometimes, historians need a wide berth of imagination to truly understand the past. Contextualizing history is not far off from what I do as an actor, especially in a historical piece. As an actor examining a play, I examine the given circumstances of my character; that is their station, family status, likes, dislikes, all as written by the playwright. Historians must examine the given circumstances as dictated by the past. The Historian must put themselves in the past, in the shoes of the subject they are examining, stripping themselves of our current knowledge and luxuries to truly grasp what they are studying. Contextualizing history, giving it a narrative that flows and makes it interesting to read and learn is when History is an art.
If you’re looking for some interesting non-fiction and especially if you are interested in the American Revolution or Colonial History, you should read Sometimes an Art. It’s the kind of book that, if it sounds like something you’ll like, you’ll like it. Few historians are as good as Bernard Bailyn and I definitely recommend this book. It’s a quick read, broken up into nine parts and only 260 pages.
It’s always nice to know that I’m not the only person who felt that sometimes, late at night with a pile of books on my desk and my fifth cup of tea in me, scrambling to put the finishing touches on another paper, History was an art.
Unrelated Book Thought: I am, unfortunately, missing Mumford and Sons again while they tour in the States, but I do know many people who are going to see them. I haven’t had a chance to listen to their new album, but, like all bands that put out new music that sounds different than their last, I cannot understand other people’s opinions of it. Old fans think it’s too different, while those who aren’t fans think that they’ve lost the sound that made them different. They claim the band sounds the same as every other popular band.
This is a long and tiresome topic for me and so I’ll leave it at this: if you only like a band because of one thing (ie. The banjo/ folksy sound in Mumford and Sons’ case) then you don’t really like the band. A band is more than a style or one instrument. I like my favorite bands because of their style, sound, the song composition, lyrics, their energy, their passion and more. It is okay to be critical and to dislike an album that a band puts out- but giving up on a band just because they changed something is, in my opinion, a silly thing.
My rule with bands is this: If I don’t like an album, I still get the next one. If they put out two in a row I don’t like, then I usually don’t get the next album without listening to a few songs first.
Next Time, on The Whale and the Petunias: I force myself to think about a fictional character’s muscles much more than I’m comfortable with while reading the recent hit Divergent. Is the book deserving of the recent attention it’s getting, or is it some sort of weird fluke, like Twilight was? Seriously, I’ve been forced to think about young, fictional, male muscles way too over the past month.