Magazine article Humanities

Editor's Note: Bernard Bailyn

Magazine article Humanities

Editor's Note: Bernard Bailyn

Article excerpt

By Bernard Bailyn's definition, the study of history is never a science, always a craft-and sometimes an art. Winner of two Pulitzer prizes in history, Bailyn is this year's Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities, the highest honor the federal government bestows.

He has been practicing the art and teaching the craft to Harvard students for forty-five years. One of them, Jack Rakove, now a Stanford professor and a Pulitzer Prize-winner himself, writes about "the heady experience" of being in a graduate seminar with Bailyn. "For the first half of the course," he writes, "we were never quite sure what the subject was." The sessions would start off predictably enough with what had been discussed in the previous class, but then "it would be off to the races, as a whole new topic was introduced and brilliantly sketched, opening up interpretive vistas more rapidly than anyone could imagine." Bailyn's style was to leave them "to puzzle things out for ourselves, goaded only by his critical eye and his alarming propensity to call us up short with the most famous of all his questions: 'So what?"' The measure of the man shows clearly in his books, Rakove writes. Bailyn's Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, in Rakove's assessment, "transformed the writing of American history."

Bailyn won the Pulitzer Prize in history and the Bancroft Prize for Ideological Origins; he won another Pulitzer in 1986 for Voyagers to the West. Still another, The Ordeal of Thomas Hutchinson, won the National Book Award. …

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