The Genuine Article

Edmund S. Morgan is the Sterling Professor Emeritus at Yale University and author of fifteen previous books, including the widely admired biography Benjamin Franklin (2002). The Genuine Article: A Historian Looks at Early America is a collection of twenty-four book review essays published in the New York Review of Books from 1974 to 2002. Although the author describes these in his introduction as an intellectual autobiography, few readers will see the essays as presenting a record of Morgan’s historical thinking over time. They are not organized according to when they were written. Instead, they are arranged into four sections on “New Englanders,” “Southerners,” “Revolutionaries,” and “Questions of Culture,” with the earlier essays distinguished from the later only by the dates at the end of each and by occasional references to contemporary events.

While the entries in this collection do not tell readers much about Morgan’s development as a historian, they do give a fairly consistent view of his perspective on history. All of the essays show originality and an ability to recreate past thinking in the space of a few pages. For example, in a piece on “Those Sexy Puritans,” Morgan argues persuasively that the New England Puritans actually took a fairly positive view of sexuality and that they helped to bring about a kind of sexual revolution by limiting the control of clergy over private behavior. In the “Southerners” section, he reviews three books on the role of honor in Southern culture to investigate the anthropological meaning of this idea. The essay on Benjamin Franklin, in the third section, gives readers a new perspective on Franklin as at once radical and conservative. The final entry, written with Marie Morgan, demonstrates how the twenty four-volume American National Biography is both a defining artifact of American culture and an illustration of changes in the writing of history and biography since the earlier twenty volume Dictionary of American Biography.