Michael Bellesiles Takes Another Shot
Let's say you spend a dozen years researching a book. It's the first in a planned trilogy, the historical opus you consider your life's work. The book is published to gushing reviews ("stunning," "brilliant," a "tour de force") and becomes a national best seller. You win a big prize. You are living every scholar's dream.
Then it starts to crumble. Troubling flaws are found in your acclaimed work. At first you dismiss your critics as cranks, but as the evidence piles up, you struggle to defend yourself. Your admirers desert you. Your publisher drops you. Your big prize is withdrawn, and you're pressured to leave the faculty job you love. For a moment, you had everything, and then—just like that—it all goes away, plus some.
It's a sad story, yet the man who lived it, Michael A. Bellesiles, doesn't get a lot of sympathy. The book he wrote, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (Knopf, 2000), claimed to show that until the Civil War, guns were relatively rare in the United States, an argument that incensed gun-rights advocates. They were giddy over his downfall. Once it became impossible to deny that the work contained serious errors, former supporters felt betrayed and rapidly disassociated themselves from the book and its disgraced author. It was hard to tell who hated him more.
Now, nearly eight years later, Mr. Bellesiles is back. His new book, 1877: America's Year of Living Violently (New Press), isn't a contrarian showstopper; instead, it's an anecdotal history of a famously eventful and profoundly bloody year in American history. It's one of several books Mr. Bellesiles has been working on. After years spent figuring out how to recover and move on, the history professor has returned to writing and is feeling more productive than ever.
But will anyone give Mr. Bellesiles a second chance? And, more to the point, does he even deserve one?...
As for what he's been doing since 2002, Mr. Bellesiles isn't entirely forthcoming. He says he did some teaching in England, although he doesn't want to divulge the details. He did a lot of freelance work for a textbook company. He volunteered with veterans. Before graduate school, he had worked for a number of years as a bartender. When I ask whether he returned to that profession following his departure from Emory, Mr. Bellesiles demurs."I'm still a good bartender," he says."I will tell you that."
The reason for his reluctance is that he knows whatever he says will be molded into a narrative he can't control. I will write this article. His multitudinous critics will seize on portions of it, some of them no doubt questioning why The Chronicle would spill so much ink on a man they consider a fraud. There is always risk for the interviewee: He is placing himself in the hands of a reporter he doesn't know and hoping for the best. Mr. Bellesiles understands this risk better than most. He's been burned before.
He is frank, however, about his inner turmoil. After Emory he thought about going to law school, something his parents had encouraged him to do when he graduated from the University of California at Santa Cruz. He thought about abandoning history entirely. Then, a couple of years ago, a former student of his who is now a professor at Central Connecticut State University suggested that he return to the classroom as an adjunct. Friends and family thought it would be good for him.
And it has been. Being back in the classroom, he says, has helped restore his shaken self-confidence. He was sufficiently bolstered that he able to turn out the new book in 18 months. He's mostly finished with another book, about a friend who was on death row. And he's started a third, tentatively titled"A People's Military History of the United States."
I remark that he's been awfully productive.
"Thank you," he says."I like to think so."...
But there have been bumps on the road to rehabilitation. The first was a letter sent by his publisher to promote 1877. It described Mr. Bellesiles as"the target of an infamous 'swiftboating' campaign by the National Rifle Association" and called Arming America a"Bancroft Prize-winning book."...
Mr. Bellesiles says he didn't approve or even read the promotional letter. The publicity director at the New Press, Anne Sullivan, says the letter was nothing unusual:"It was strong language, but that's publicity, right?" Sure, but intentionally misleading publicity probably doesn't do much for Mr. Bellesiles's reputation, and bloggers were quick to pounce on the letter. Jonah Goldberg, of The National Review, deemed Mr. Bellesiles the"Lord High Commissioner of Chutzpah."...
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