Gordon Wood: American history author seeks to appeal to general public, academics

Historians in the News

Gordon Wood, a professor of history at Brown University in Providence, R.I., is a legendary figure in his field of early American history. He has written many books about the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers.

His newest book is "The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History."

In 21 varied and provocative essays, Wood considers how history has changed over the years in the hands of both popular and academic historians. As a professor with a doctorate from Harvard, he falls into the academic classification, but his philosophy has veered toward the popular.

"I try to appeal to two audiences simultaneously," said Wood during a phone interview from his office at Brown University. Whereas he used to write primarily for the university student and budding professor, he now writes with the general public in mind, and he is not worried that many historians writing today do not have doctorates.
Well-known popular historians like David McCullough (biographies of Harry Truman and John Adams) and Thomas Fleming tend to attract a larger reading audience than academic historians, Wood said. "McCullough, who has a wonderful sense of style, is the best known and is the natural successor to Barbara Tuchman. Thomas Fleming, author of 'The New Dealers' War,' is also a superb historian."

Others who write popular history include Ron Chernow, Walter Isaacson and Stacy Schiff.

Wood also praised the work of the prolific academic historian, Daniel Boorstin, who "reached two audiences and whose whole career caused academics to be displeased with him. His series of three books entitled, 'The Americans,' will be with us through the 21st century."

Wood believes that more historians in recent years have become literary, consciously making their books more readable to the non-historian. There also has been a remarkable increase in the numbers of authors writing so-called "historical novels," which Wood approves of "as long as they're labeled that way. You can learn a lot reading a historical novel, but most readers want to know if what they are reading is true."...
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