Forrest McDonald is a legend in his own time. The NEH's 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 McDonald's pointed comments on fellow historians from Kenneth Stampp to William Appleton Williams, his admiration for Oscar Handlin's 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.
"The norm is to write for one's 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.