Neglected Book

Dening, Greg, History's Anthropology: The Death of William Gooch (1988).

Most historians know about Dening's stunning study of Mr Bligh's Bad Language: Passion, Power and Theatre on the Bounty but few seem to have read his brilliant little book History's Anthropology: The Death of William Gooch--at least based on anectdotal evidence and its ranking at 508,000 in Amazon.com. Part of the reason may have been its somewhat obscure original publication by the Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania (but it is now out from University of Hawaii Press). Another reason may be its seemingly slight subject--the murder of 22-year-old astronomer William Gooch in 1792 Waimea on the island of Oahu. As Dening himself writes "By any measure of events that change the course of human development or exemplify great movements in human thought," Gooch's death "was and is of no great importance." But Dening turns into a story of great importance by using it explore how Gooch's death "made History in the ways History is always made, by the selective transformations of events and experiences into public cultural forms of narratives." He shows how the Hawaiins and Britishers each "made history" of Gooch's death. In the process, he offers delightful, brilliant, and sometimes puzzling reflections on what it means to "do" or "make" history. A brief quote from the first chapter gives a sense of his style: "My ethnographic reflections on the death of William Gooch is called History's Anthropology. By the ambivalences that apostrophes create, History's Anthropology comprises at one time the anthropology of history, historical anthropology, and anthropological history. . . . [I]t explores the ways in which history is both a metaphor of the past and a metonymy of the present."

Recommended by Roy Rosenzweig, George Mason University

Roy Rosenzweig is College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. He is the author, co-author, and co-editor of a number of books, including The Park and the People: A History of Central Park