Recovering the Past
A Historian's Memoir
Forrest McDonald is a legend in his own time. The NEHs sixteenth Jefferson Lecturer, he is one of our most eminent historians and the author of numerous provocative works on the early American republic, the Constitution, and the American presidency. Renowned for his sly wit and iconoclasm, he is also a conservative in a mostly liberal profession, a man who believes that his discipline has been subverted by those who serve public policy agendas. He now candidly recounts and reconsiders his own career, mixing in equal measure autobiography with a sharp critique of the historical craft.
Beginning in 1949, McDonald has traversed a sometimes rocky academic road from Brown University to Wayne State and finally the University of Alabama. He rose to prominence by arguing against the popular histories of Frederick Jackson Turner and Charles Beard, and his rebuttal of the latter was published as his seminal book We the People. Recovering the Past carries forward this critical tradition with McDonalds pointed comments on fellow historians from Kenneth Stampp to William Appleton Williams, his admiration for Oscar Handlins book Truth in History, and his distaste for the revisionism of the New Left historians who depict the American story as an epic of oppression.
“McDonald has written a feisty, candid account of his professional life.”
—Journal of Southern History
“A hitchhiker’s guide to the historian’s galaxy. . . [from] the premier American historian writing today.”
—American SpectatorSee all reviews...
“For nearly half a century now McDonald has been publishing scintillating studies of the political, economic, and intellectual origins of the American republic. . . . He has earned the reputation ‘a legend in his own time’ not only for his scholarship and productivity, but also for the way in which he has scaled the academic heights. In a profession long dominated by liberals and leftists, he has fearlessly challenged the regnant orthodoxy and lived to tell the tale. . . . Recovering the Past is that tale. . . . All the tempests (of his career) he recounts with zest in this candid and highly readable memoir.”
“For all the occasionally caustic observations and the consistently sage intellect, the thing that comes through most of all is McDonald’s unbridled joy; a joy for history, a joy for the pursuit of knowledge, and an overall zest for life.”
“One of the more absorbing recent books of interest to conservative readers. . . . McDonald’s compelling narrative is peppered with blunt assessments of his own profession and historical trends. He devotes considerable space to raking left-wing revisionist historians over the coals. . . . McDonald’s blunt, no nonsense observations and conservative outlook are encouraging signs of optimism from an honest scholar. . . . Should be on every conservative’s short list of must-read books.”
“Informative, delightful to read, and a page-turner for any American who loves history.”
—California Literary Review
“An entertaining memoir by a historian who wants to recover America’s past from those who he believes have distorted its meaning.”
—History: Reviews of New Books
“Forrest McDonald is that rarest of creatures—an American academic who is an outspoken conservative. He is also a first-rate historian, the prolific author of indispensable works of history. . . . This memoir offers an excellent bird’s-eye view of what’s happened in the writing and teaching of history over the past 50 years.”
“McDonald provides a bracing—and highly entertaining—inside view of the battleground of academic history in the PC age. He also communicates a joy in his craft.”
“McDonald has written a bright memoir that illuminates the craft of the historian and provides a spirited account of his long-running battle against the unthinking leftist bias that plagues his profession. . . . McDonald is nothing if not combative, but the tone of [this book] is far from belligerent. He clearly believes himself to be a lucky man, engaged in work he thoroughly enjoys and blessed with the freedom to pursue it.”
—Wall Street Journal
“This book is as engaging as it is provocative. McDonald’s autobiographical one-man tour through the major battles of twentieth-century American historiography is hard to put down.”
—Pauline Maier, author of American Scripture
“When a first-rate historian reflects on his life and work with candor and wisdom, other historians will want to read it. But McDonald has written a book that anyone who cares about education, or is just in the mood for a witty romp through the vicissitudes of academia, will enjoy and profit from.”
—Eugene D. Genovese, author of The Southern Tradition
“A delightful and informative account that captures the sense of intellectual adventure that drew McDonald to the life of a historian, as well as his thoughtful reactions to the controversies that have plagued the profession in recent years.”
—Diane Ravitch, author of The Language PoliceSee fewer reviews...
The norm is to write for ones fellow historians, he says, but that seems to me to be wrong-headed and to result in stultifying reading. I have chosen, instead, to write for that elusive critter called the general reader, or, more precisely, for the vast number of people who genuinely love history for its own sake—which, as will become evident, I regard as eliminating a sizable majority of professional historians.
As McDonald observes, thinking historically facilitates our knowing who and where we are, and the reward of studying the past comes when one realizes how its many parts fit together. As the pieces of his own past fall together, they form a story that will engross, inform, and even gall readers seeking an inside look behind the ivied walls of academe. Recovering the Past offers an eye-opening look at one man and his discipline; more than that, it is a manifesto for those who truly care about history.