Document Type




Publication Date

October 2010

Journal, Book or Conference Title

New Books Network


I fear that most people think that "history" is "the past" and that the one and the other live in books. But it just ain't so. History is a story we tell about the past, or rather some small portion of it. The past itself is gone and cannot, outside science fiction, be revisited. And the histories in books are neither dead nor alive. They are zombies, endlessly repeating themselves, never having a new thought, never responding to anything you say. (Plato, by the way, is good on this subject.) In point of fact the only place that histories really live is in the minds of historians in the act of creation. In this context, the story is far from dead. Indeed, it hasn't even been born. As historians read, research, and think, they make histories like a carpenter makes a table. Readers rarely get to see the historical craftsmen at their benches. All they see is the result.

Today we'll have the opportunity to look into the history workshop with Abbott ("Tom") Gleason. Tom has worked in academic history for nearly half a century. He has been everywhere, done everything, and faced every challenge a working historian can. And now he's written a terrific memoir about his path, and that of historians of his generation in general: A Liberal Education (TidePool Press, 2010). I came away from the book with a renewed appreciation of the hold Zeitgeist has on historians and their work. Tom was raised in a cultural mileiu (the liberal WASP establishment) that has now largely vanished. That peculiar, specific context had a powerful impact (by his own admission, both positive and negative) on his historical opinions and writing. It was interesting for me to see how Tom, as a conflicted, thoughtful son of privilege, negotiated Harvard of the 1950s, academia in the 1960s, and the rise (and relative decline) of the Russian studies industry in the post war decades. With eyes wide open, he recognizes the limitations of his Cold-War scholarly cohort, the ways in which he and his colleagues saw some things while being oblivious to others. Sometimes they got Russia right; sometimes they didn't. But they were always on a quest to find the historical truth. Tom's memoir shows just how difficult that truth is to find.


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