Historians Are Either Hedgehogs or Foxes

Illuminating History: A Retrospective of Seven Decadesby Bernard Bailyn; New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2020; 288 pp., $28.95

Great historians must be first or primarily expert storytellers, insists historian Bernard Bailyn in his latest book. But the Pulitzer Prize winning author also declares that historians must be social scientists as well. Yet, if greatness entails doing both, Bailyn disappointingly fails to take into account his own limitations and makes little use of his vast experience in deciding whether doing both, at once, is really a reasonable aspiration.

Bailyn was one of the most highly regarded early-national American historians of the latter half of the 20th century, a status that earned him an endowed chair in Early American History at Harvard University. Illuminating History is Bailyn’s last of well over a dozen books, as he died last year at the age of 98, shortly before this work was published. That he was still writing at that advanced age is a testament to his enormous productivity. Illuminating...