On Sunday, October 30, 2010, the San Francisco Chronicle will publish a review I wrote of H.W. Brands's history of the United States in the late nineteenth century. You can find it here. This follows a review I wrote of Ron Chernow's big new bio of George Washington, published the week before by the Washington Post. You can read it here.
On reading the comments posted on the Post's website, I'm struck by how the readers' reactions reflect our modern politics, rather than the eighteenth century. I'm betting that many readers will react similarly to my review of Brands's book. There's an irony to this: My most important point, in both reviews, is to say that we must understand historical figures in the context of their times, not ours.
And yet, when political passions run high, as they do now, it is inevitable that many readers will not follow this advice. Politics tends to dirty up the historical waters—not because politics itself is bad or dirty, but because it is so filled with emotion, with passion. It's difficult to step outside of the urgency of now to coolly understand the very different world of yesterday. I guess that's why I get paid the, er, small bucks.
But my job, as a biographer, is to try to bring readers along with me when I try to move inside the contemporary mindset of the past. Not everyone will be willing to follow; many will insist on seeing the past in terms of the arguments of the present. But we can't really understand the present unless we see how it emerged from the past. Things do change, and we'll never really see where we are unless we know where we came from to get here.