What's Happened to History?
What a bad time it has been for the nation's best-known historians--that is, for the small number of historical writers, some affiliated with academic institutions and some not, whose books regularly inhabit the bestseller lists, whose faces frequently appear on television, and whose speaking fees reach well into the five figures. The entire roster consists of six people: Stephen E. Ambrose, Michael Beschloss, Joseph J. Ellis, Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough, and Edmund Morris. All but Morris have recently been accused, in widely read publications and in some cases on talk shows, of offenses ranging from incompetence and superficiality to plagiarism and outright fabrication. Morris had his own spell of notoriety three years ago, when he published a"semi-fictional" (his term) biography of Ronald Reagan.
The natural inclination, when a related cluster of events occurs, is to draw a Big Lesson from it. In this case, the leading contender seems to be that real history is written by unknown but careful scholars whose main reward is the satisfaction of a job well done (and, of course, tenure). Perhaps there is such a lesson to be drawn from the controversies concerning Ambrose, Beschloss, Ellis, Goodwin, McCullough, and Morris. But let's suspend the impulse to say so for the moment, and instead take a close look at what happened to each of them.
Like the others, Michael Beschloss and David McCullough have been pilloried, but in their case for no good reason at all. Each is the author of several thoroughly researched, deeply insightful, and wonderfully well-written works of American history. Each published an excellent book in 2001. Beschloss's Reaching Glory: Lyndon Johnson's Secret White House Tapes, 1964-1965 is the second in a three-volume series of carefully edited and expertly annotated tape recordings from the Johnson administration. McCullough's biography, John Adams, is a worthy successor to his 1992 award-winning volume, Truman. Yet each writer was, and not for the first time, the target of an intellectual mugging.
To be sure, McCullough was guilty of one sin, which friends and alumni of the University of Virginia may be excused for regarding as mortal but which most other readers probably will classify as venial. As Richard N. Rosenfeld pointed out in the September 2001 issue of Harper's, McCullough attributed a"nonexistent quotation" to Thomas Jefferson, namely, that Adams was"the colossus of independence." McCullough admitted the mistake. No other factual errors have been pointed out in his 736-page book.
The real assault on McCullough came in Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz's lengthy review of John Adams in the July 2, 2001 issue of the New Republic. Wilentz treated McCullough and his book as Plaintiff's Exhibit A in the case of academic history versus popular history. In recent decades, Wilentz noted approvingly, academic historians have been busy pursuing a"historiography of national self-reckoning," focusing critically on"the history of labor, women, . . . slavery and race relations." Their goal has been for American history"to rattle its readers, not to confirm them in their popular myths and platitudes about America."
Unfortunately, Wilentz lamented, most readers outside the professoriate don't like being rattled. And so they have turned instead to writers like McCullough who offer them"popular history as passive nostalgic spectacle." It's bad enough, Wilentz suggested, that McCullough's highest academic degree is a B.A. from Yale and that he spent years writing for magazines like Time and American Heritage, the latter"a quirky grab bag of fascinating but undemanding features . . . [whose] style came to dominate the writing of non-academic American history books." Still worse is that,"thanks to public television, McCullough has become the handsome, authoritative face of American history--and, with his pleasantly weathered baritone, the voice of American history." For reasons he doesn't explain, Wilentz concludes that"all this" has"accompanied--no, it has required--[McCullough to] move into historical realms that are unsuited to his strengths as a writer."
Two-thirds of the way into his review, after pausing to take swings at both the Ken Burns Civil War series (" crushingly vacuous and sentimental in its historic judgments") and"the egregious advent of the 'presidential historian,' a hitherto unknown scholarly species whose chief function is to offer television viewers anodyne tidbits of historical trivia that seem pertinent to current political events, and to look and sound remarkable when doing so", Wilentz turned to John Adams itself. The substance of his complaint was that McCullough had focused on Adams's character, liked what he saw, and written"merely another valentine." The first"valentine," wrote Wilentz, quoting an old Ronald Steel review in the New Republic, had been Truman.
Wilentz did not mention Michael Beschloss in his article, but Beschloss was surely the remarkable-looking and remarkable-sounding"presidential historian" at whom the professor directed his scorn. Like McCullough, Beschloss is an attractive, pleasant-voiced man who appears frequently on television. Like McCullough, Beschloss has no graduate degrees in history and holds no faculty appointment. Like McCullough, Beschloss writes books that lots of people buy, read, and enjoy. And like McCullough, Beschloss has recently been singled out for criticism as an intellectual lightweight in the pages of the New Republic."Beschloss," wrote Noam Scheiber in the magazine's November 13, 2000, issue,"who is ostensibly on television because of his ability as a historian, not only doesn't put that ability to use on the tube; he barely puts it to use at all."
Finding an intellectual perch high enough for academic historians to drip disdain on Beschloss has been no easy task. All of his books are models of thorough research, riveting writing, careful consideration of the documentary record, and judicious use of interviews conducted by Beschloss himself. The more common response of reviewers in scholarly journals over the years has been to condescend. For example:
"We do not learn too much that is new, but it is an exceptional performance for a scholar only briefly away from his undergraduate work." (Professor Alfred Rollins, reviewing Beschloss's first book, Kennedy and Roosevelt: The Uneasy Alliance, for the Journal of American History)
"As the dust-jacket blurbs proclaim, this is a 'good read.' . . . [Scholars, however,] may be bemused by the discussion of Eisenhower's wardrobe in chapter 1, the potted biography of Khrushchev in chapter 7, and generally mystified by a seemingly random excursion through the wheat and chaff of the U-2 affair." (Professor Jack Snyder, reviewing Mayday: Eisenhower, Khrushchev, and the U-2 Affair for the Russian Review)
"The author aimed at writing both a best seller and a serious history. He has succeeded at the first." (Professor Carl Kaysen, reviewing The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963 for Political Science Quarterly)
Perhaps the oddest criticism of any of Beschloss's books came from a group of political scientists writing in Presidential Studies Quarterly about the first volume of Johnson recordings that Beschloss edited: Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964. Professor Terry Sullivan and a team of his graduate students at the University of North Carolina took Beschloss to task for, of all things, exercising judgment in choosing which of the endless hours of presidential conversations to include in the book."Beschloss's rendition of the president's concerns . . .," they charged,"overemphasized international involvement, particularly transcribing more than twice as many conversations on Vietnam as necessary."
Need one say more in response to this criticism than that an essential component of the historian's craft is to exercise judgment about what is important? As Beschloss notes--uncontroversially, one would think--"My chief standard in deciding which conversations to include in the book is whether they add something of historical importance to what we knew before."
The criticisms of Beschloss, like those of McCullough, reflect more on the critics than on the author. Academic historians seem to have three problems with Beschloss. Problem Number 1 is that he isn't a member of the guild. Not only does he lack a Ph.D. in history, he majored in political science as an undergraduate and his graduate degree is in business. Newsweek may think it is praising Beschloss when it calls him"the nation's leading presidential historian." But praise like that is the kiss of death among academic historians.
Shame on the professors. In the academic world as in the larger world, turfmanship is a certain path to insularity--in this case, historians writing only for fellow historians and erecting walls of condescension to keep others out of the discussion simply because they lack the requisite guild card, er, diploma. Anything that causes historical writing to be judged arbitrarily instead of on its merits is bad for history.
The second problem academic historians seem to have with Beschloss is that he is a celebrity. ABC World News Tonight anchor Peter Jennings praises Beschloss as"our resident historian who gives us such a great sense of history." Tonight Show host Jay Leno calls him"the handsomest political historian I've ever seen." Academic historians hear remarks like these and gnash their teeth, partly because they equate media celebrity with superficiality and partly because when their phones ring, it's seldom the Today show calling.
But if celebrity is no mark of distinction for a historian, surely it is no mark of ineptness either. Beschloss has spent many more hours in dusty archives than in television studios. Indeed, it's the work he does in the archives that equips him to leaven television news's admittedly superficial coverage of national events with a certain measure of historical context. Academic historians should take a page from Beschloss's book. To be sure, not many professors are going to find themselves on NBC Nightly News or even the History Channel no matter how hard they try. But nearly all of them know things that, if distilled for a local op-ed page or radio station, would measurably improve the level of public discourse in their communities.
Academic historians' third problem with Beschloss is that he writes political history. In his otherwise misguided assault on McCullough, Wilenz correctly pointed out that historical writing has clustered into two camps in recent decades. Among academic historians, social history centered on issues of race, class, and gender has gained primacy over traditional political history. As Columbia University historian Eric Foner wrote in the introduction to his 1990 book The New American History,"The old 'presidential synthesis'--which understood the evolution of American society chiefly via presidential elections and administrations--is dead (and not lamented)." But among popular historians like Beschloss and McCullough, political history could not be more alive.
Academic historians earn their living as salaried members of college and university faculties, popular historians as self-supporting free-lance writers. Academic historians sell most of their books to conscripts, students who must have them to pass a course. Popular historians sell most of theirs to customers who buy out of genuine interest in the subject.
These disparities rankle the academic historical community. The explanation, of course, lies with the people, who choose to spend their money on presidential biographies and, in Beschloss's case, accounts of diplomatic history rather than on, say, books about the plight of weavers in early seventeenth century Dustbury. But social historians consider themselves to be the people's champions against the elites, and so their frustration with the Beschlosses and McCulloughs grows.
Is it possible that returning to political history may be a giant step toward the solution for what ails academic historians? Wilentz argues testily that complaints about"the dullness, the narrowness, and the atrocious writing that afflicted the analytical history that was practiced in the universities . . . [have] become cliches." The great Yale historian C. Vann Woodward offered a more sensible view of the matter. Lamenting the recent turn away from politics among academic historians, Woodward suggested that"people of a democratic tradition . . . have a natural and abiding concern for power and those who have wielded it and to what effect--a concern that historians should never have neglected." And, he might have added, a concern that Beschloss and McCullough have helped to keep alive.
Unlike Beschloss and McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen E. Ambrose are formally credentialed scholars (Goodwin, Ph.D. in government from Harvard; Ambrose, Ph.D. in history from the University of Wisconsin) who have spent all or part of their careers on university faculties. Unlike them, too, Goodwin and Ambrose have been accused of plagiarism.
Ambrose's troubles began on January 4, 2002, when Fred Barnes of The Weekly Standard published an article showing that several phrases, sentences, and extended passages in Ambrose's most recent best seller, The Wild Blue: The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s over Germany, had been lifted from Wings of Morning: The Story of the Last American Bomber Shot Down over Germany in World War II, a 1995 book by University of Pennsylvania historian Thomas Childers. Ambrose had mentioned Childers's book in footnotes but had failed to place the copied passages in quotation marks. Instead, he usually changed a few words. As one example, compare Childers, page 83, with Ambrose, page 164:
Childers:"Up, up, up, groping through the clouds for what seemed like an eternity. . . . No amount of practice could have prepared them for what they encountered. B-24s, glittering like mica, were popping up out of the clouds all over the sky."
Ambrose:"Up, up, up he went, until he got above the clouds. No amount of practice could have prepared the pilot and crew for what they encountered--B24s, glittering like mica, were popping up out of the clouds over here, over there, everywhere."
Two days after Barnes's article appeared, Ambrose told the New York Times,"I made a mistake for which I am sorry. It will be corrected in future editions of the book." The mistake Ambrose admitted was not plagiarism--he explicitly denied that charge--but sloppiness. The Wild Blue, it turned out, was his eighth book in five years, and he had farmed out much of the research to his five grown children."I wish I had put quotation marks in," Ambrose said. Childers was satisfied with Ambrose's statement, and Barnes published another article declaring that"Ambrose did the right thing and did it graciously."
Unfortunately for Ambrose, that wasn't the end of the story. Within a few days, Forbes.com reporter Mark Lewis uncovered three additional books by Ambrose that included lifted passages: Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Live of Two American Warriors (1975), which took sentences from Jay Monaghan's Custer: The Life of General George Armstrong Custer; Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990 (1991), which borrowed language from Robert Sam Anson's Exile: The Unquiet Oblivion of Richard M. Nixon; and Citizen Soldiers (1997), which lifted extracts from Joseph Balkoski's Beyond the Beachhead: The 29th Infantry Division in Normandy.
The Times's David Kirkpatrick then discovered that Ambrose, in writing The Wild Blue, had taken not only the passages from Childers's Wings of Morning for which he had apologized, but also five passages from two other books: The Army Air Forces in World War II, by Wesley Frank Craven and James Lea Cate and The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon, by Michael S. Sherry. Forbes.com's Lewis reported that before he died in 1974, the celebrated World War II historian Cornelius Ryan had written to Ambrose's publisher accusing Ambrose of"a rather graceless falsification which concerns me and my book, The Last Battle." Ambrose had copied (and garbled!) two quotations from Ryan for his own 1970 book, The Supreme Commander: The War Years of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. By early February, it seemed, exposing Ambrose had become a participation sport. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch revealed that Lara Marks, a senior at Washington University, had found passages from three works, including Dumas Malone's celebrated biography of Thomas Jefferson, in Ambrose's 1996 book Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. In this book, Ambrose had omitted not just quotation marks, but footnotes too.
These additional revelations rendered Ambrose's initial explanations meaningless and his apology inadequate."One plagiarism is careless," David Plotz pointed out in Slate.com."Two is a pattern. Four, five or more is pathology." Writing in Time, Roger Rosenblatt added,"If Ambrose wanted to plead accident, he should have taken the passages word for word." It's when an author" changes a few words here and there" that a"suspicious person might conclude that you are trying not to get caught." Ambrose's thefts of language for his books about Custer, Eisenhower, and Nixon are especially damning because they occurred long before he became famous and could claim being stretched too thin as a mitigating circumstance.
To make matters worse, as the controversy unfolded, Ambrose's remorse seemed to become more grudging."I don't discuss my documents," he told the Times."I discuss the story. It almost gets to the point where, how much is the reader going to take. I'm not writing a Ph.D. dissertation." He posted a letter on his web site stephenambrose.com from George McGovern (a World War II pilot in his pre-political years, and the hero of The Wild Blue) saying that Ambrose"is one of the few great men I have been privileged to know. Like the rest of us, he's not beyond an occasional mistake." Ambrose persisted in denying that he was guilty of plagiarism."I am not out there stealing other people's writing. If I am writing up a passage and it is a story I want to tell and this story fits and part of it is from other people's writing, I just type it up that way and put it in a footnote." Childers was so offended by all this backing and filling that he withdrew his acceptance of Ambrose's initial apology.
Although no one has accused Doris Kearns Goodwin of being a serial plagiarist, her story followed a similar trajectory to Ambrose's. On January 18, 2002, Bo Crider reported in The Weekly Standard that in writing her 1987 book, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys: An American Saga, Goodwin had lifted passages from three earlier works: Hank Searls's The Lost Prince: Young Joe, the Forgotten Kennedy, a biography of Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr.; Rose Kennedy's autobiography, Times to Remember; and, most frequently, Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times, by the British biographer Lynne McTaggart. Goodwin told Crider that McTaggart had complained to her soon after The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys was published."I acknowledged immediately that she was right, that she should have been footnoted more fully," said Goodwin."[McTaggart] asked that more footnotes be added and a paragraph crediting her book. This was done in the paperback edition."
Subsequent reporting by Crider and by the Boston Globe and New York Times revealed that there had been a bit more to the incident than Goodwin admitted. McTaggart said that she'd had"papers ready to be filed in court" showing that"there were dozens and dozens of individual phrases and unusual turns of phrase taken virtually verbatim, or paragraphs where a few words had been changed." The only thing that kept her from suing was that Goodwin's publisher, Simon and Schuster, agreed to a monetary settlement, along with the promise of additional credit to McTaggart in new editions of Goodwin's book. Doubly embarrassing for Goodwin was that the news stories went out of their way to remind readers how indignant Goodwin herself had been in 1993 when she claimed that Joe McGinniss stole passages from The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys for his book, The Last Brother: The Rise and Fall of Teddy Kennedy."He just uses it flat out, without saying that it came from my work," Goodwin had charged."You expect that another writer would acknowledge that. It's inexplicable why it wasn't done." McGinniss says (and the record mostly bears him out) that he cited Goodwin's book repeatedly,"in each case placing quotation marks around the words used, and crediting her as the source."
What gave the Goodwin story legs was less the deed itself than her attempts to explain it away. Instead of making the reasonable claim that the journalistic statute of limitations had surely run out on a fifteen-year-old, one-time offense, Goodwin couldn't stop rationalizing. Initially, McTaggart had been disinclined to talk to American reporters, but after Goodwin made her borrowing seem less extensive than it actually was, McTaggart came out swinging. She revealed the extent of Goodwin's plagiarism and claimed that the monetary settlement had been"many times more than what is usually the case for this kind of thing." Goodwin's mea culpa in a guest column for Time was also, as Slate.com's Timothy Noah pointed out,"woefully inadequate." She confessed only to copying"phrases" from McTaggart, sounded a self-pitying note ("Ironically, the more intensive and far-reaching a historian's research, the greater the difficulty of citation"), and framed the controversy as if it were an interesting case study for a writers' workshop ("The larger question for those of us who write history is to understand how citation mistakes can happen").
Like Ambrose, Goodwin explicitly denied that she had committed plagiarism--"absolutely not," she told the Globe. These denials are especially disingenuous. A Harvard alumna and once a teacher there, Goodwin should consult the university statement on plagiarism, which even undergraduates are required to read and follow."[I]n one common scenario," the statement reads,"the student gets careless while taking notes on a source or incorporating notes into a draft, so the source's words and ideas blur into those of the student . . . If, in your essay on plagiarism, after reading the [previous sentence] you observe that 'at a certain point in the writing process the student has neither the time nor the inclination to resist the blurring of his own source's word into his own' but don't use quotation marks at least for the words in the middle of the sentence you are plagiarizing even if you do cite [this] booklet" (italics mine, or rather Noah's, who printed this passage in Slate.com). So much for Goodwin's claim that because she sometimes attached footnotes when she stole McTaggart's (and others') language, she had not committed plagiarism.
Goodwin also followed Ambrose by attempting to frame the issue as merely one of sloppy record keeping. The problem, she wrote in Time, was that she used to copy down passages from the works she consulted in longhand, and sometimes forgot that they were someone else's words instead of her own. Now she scans text from her sources into a computer and keeps her own notes in a separate file. But as Thomas Mallon, the author of Stolen Words: Forays into the Origins and Ravages of Plagiarism, told Ken Ringle of the Washington Post,"sloppiness is the first excuse claimed by the plagiarist. Sloppiness is just a professional sin. Plagiarism is a moral one." In his book, Mallon also points out that computers offer less a solution than a new kind of problem. Plagiarists who used to blame their handwritten notebooks now claim that they confuse computer note files with their own words. The truth is that technology is unrelated to the problem of stealing others' work and irrelevant to its solution. Authors who care enough about intellectual honesty to place quoted material in quotation marks at the note-taking stage immunize themselves against both sloppiness and plagiarism.
To pair Joseph J. Ellis and Edmund Morris may seem less plausible than to pair McCullough with Beschloss (each of them a victim of academic historians' misplaced disdain for popular political history) or Ambrose with Goodwin (two plagiarists in denial despite being caught red handed). Ellis is an academic historian who earned his doctorate at Yale and is on the faculty of Mount Holyoke College. Morris is neither an academic historian nor a faculty member. Ellis's recent offenses (he lied repeatedly to his students about serving in Vietnam and other matters) have involved his behavior, not his published work. Morris's behavior has been unobjectionable. Instead, it was his 1999 biography, Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan, that received all the flak.
Yet Ellis and Morris have two important things in common. One is that each has demonstrated an ability to write works of history that attract both critical acclaim and readers by the millions. Ellis's 1996 book American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson won the National Book Award, and Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation received the Pulitzer Prize after it was published in 2000. Morris's 1979 biography The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt earned him the American Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and his new book, Theodore Rex, is a justifiably strong contender for additional prestigious prizes. The other, more important thing that Ellis and Morris have in common is that both, for all their virtues, have committed the cardinal sin of conflating historical fact with autobiographical fiction.
The Ellis affair began with the publication of a long story by journalist Walter V. Robinson in the June 18, 2001 issue of the Boston Globe. Robinson reported that Ellis had told a number of lies about his life, both in classes that he taught at Mount Holyoke and Amherst and in other public settings. In the life that he fabricated, Ellis had scored the winning touchdown in his final high school football game. He'd spent a summer doing civil rights work in Mississippi, provoking local police to pound on his door at night and state police to follow his car. After graduating from William and Mary in 1965, he went straight to Vietnam as a paratrooper and platoon leader with the 101st Airborne Division. He also served on the staff of the American commander, Gen. William Westmoreland. Distressed by what he saw in Vietnam, Ellis joined the antiwar movement after coming home. Students were suitably impressed when Ellis shared these memories. Erich Carey, who took Ellis's course on the literature of Vietnam, was one of several undergraduates who told the Globe that Ellis's"personal experience gave the course more gravity. He was honest about his experience in the war and the effect it had on him. . . . He had gone, taken the test of manhood, and passed it."
As Robinson discovered, none of Ellis's claims were true. His high school had lost the last two football games of the season, and Ellis wasn't even on the team. His time in Mississippi had been spent recruiting students for an academic program, not working for civil rights. He never served in Vietnam. Instead, after graduating from college in 1965 on an ROTC scholarship, he deferred active duty for four years to attend graduate school at Yale. Degree in hand, he spent his three years in uniform teaching history at West Point, where he told a colleague,"Why should I go be a ground-pounder in Vietnam when I can polish my academic credentials here at West Point?" Ellis was not on Westmoreland's staff. Nor was he involved in the antiwar movement in any visible way, if at all.
Incredibly, neither Ellis nor Mount Holyoke was initially inclined to treat these revelations as a serious matter."Even in the best of lives, mistakes are made," said Ellis; a curiously impersonal statement, rendered in the passive voice. Mount Holyoke's president, Joanne V. Creighton, declared that during his thirty years at the college, Ellis"has earned a reputation for great integrity, honesty and honor. . . . The College is proud to have him on our faculty."
This posture became untenable almost immediately. The first salvo against Ellis and Mount Holyoke was fired by Emory University law professor David J. Garrow, who wrote a much-quoted op-ed piece for the Globe. In the first sentence (which was by no means the most fiery), Garrow declared,"Ellis's confession that he has larded his classes about the Vietnam War with fraudulent falsehoods about his own utterly spurious military service there ought to preclude Ellis from ever again taking the podium in a college classroom." Faculty colleagues at Mount Holyoke lamented that Ellis had"betrayed the principles we all stand for" and students wondered why Ellis was not expected to live up to the college honor code's requirement to act"honestly . . . in both words and deeds." Authentic Vietnam veterans flooded Mount Holyoke with complaints. Newspapers around the country ran critical editorials.
It did not take long for both Ellis and Mount Holyoke to change their tune. The college launched an investigation and, in August, suspended Ellis for one year without pay, took away his endowed chair, and barred him from teaching his course about Vietnam and American Culture. Ellis responded with a statement accepting the punishment. He admitted that his behavior was"stupid and wrong" and apologized to students and faculty for"violating the implicit covenant of trust that must exist in the classroom." He also apologized to Vietnam veterans"who have expressed their understandable anger about my lie." Not surprisingly, historians around the country scoured Ellis's books for evidence that he had falsified passages in them, too. They found none. But as one unnamed historian told the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Jefferson of American Sphinx sure seemed a lot like Ellis:"he talks about Jefferson having different personae, and each doesn't know what the other is doing."
Not many people rushed to Ellis's defense last summer, but Edmund Morris was one."Well, of course he's woven the fabric of his life partly out of whole cloth and partly out of the shot silk of fantasy," Morris wrote in an op-ed piece for the New York Times."Don't we all? Can any of us gaze into the bathroom mirror and whisper, 'I never made anything up?' All human communication, outside of the driest exchanges of statistical and other scientific data, involves a certain amount of story-telling--which is to say, creative license." Morris was even willing to fill Ellis's silence about why he had lied to his students."[A]s a fellow communicator," he wrote,"I can understand his urgent desire--Only connect!--to convey the divisiveness of the 60's to a generation rendered comatose by MTV. How better to awaken their interest than to say--as the old have been saying to the young since time immemorial--'I know what it was like, because I was young then, I felt those passions.' And then by degrees (as the technique begins to work) to add incautiously,"I was there . . . over there! I flew, I fought!'"
Morris's defense, however misguided, was especially generous because Ellis, three years earlier, had strongly criticized Morris's own excursion into fabulism in Dutch. Writing in the Washington Post's Sunday Book World section, Ellis had taken to task"Morris's blending of fact and fiction, real and fabricated dialogue," especially because Morris had"disguised" the material he had made up for the book and hidden it among the real."There is . . . surely a moral reckoning to be made when the author collects a $3 million advance for an authorized biography of one of the most significant presidents of the century and then permits his imagination to break free of the tether that ties history and biography to orthodox notions of evidence."
What had Morris done? In 1985, two-thirds of the way through writing the second of his three planned volumes on the life of Theodore Roosevelt, Morris had been persuaded by Ronald Reagan (and Random House, the giver of the $3 million advance--the largest ever for a nonfiction book at that time) to be his biographer. The offer included a promise that Morris would have access during the remainder of Reagan's second term to the president, his private diary, his family, and other members of the administration, both for interviews and for a seat in the room when meetings were taking place. In return, Reagan asked for nothing--no right to approve the manuscript, no right even to see it. Needless to say, no other presidential biographer in history has ever been granted access of this kind.
Morris's deadline for delivering the manuscript to Random House was January 1, 1991. But in September 1990, he told a conference of oral historians at the University of Virginia's White Burkett Miller Center of Public Affairs that he was nowhere near being done. Reagan, said Morris, was"the most mysterious man I have ever confronted." So frustrated was Morris that he had gone through"a period of a year or so of depression because I felt that with all my research, how come I can't understand the first thing about him?"
Morris found his way around this obstacle one day in 1992, when he wandered the campus of Reagan's alma mater, Eureka College."I literally got the taste of electricity in my mouth," he told Newsweek (elsewhere he described the moment as"an epiphany")."I thought of Reagan. If only I could have been there in the fall of 1928, I could describe him as vividly as I could describe him as president." And so Morris invented a narrator, also named Edmund Morris but born not in 1940 in Kenya like the real Morris but in 1912 in Chicago, one year after Reagan's birth. He also invented several other people, including two major characters: a newspaper columnist and lifelong friend of the narrator named Paul Rae ("to give a bitchy, gossipy humorous point of view" of Reagan) and a 'sixties radical son named Gavin Morris who rails against the system during Reagan's years as governor of California and later disappears into the Weather Underground."I think my method is an advance in biographical honesty," said Morris,"because by giving the narrator flesh, as it were, I make the reader more aware of the fact that this narrator's opinions are not necessarily fair."
The Dutch that finally emerged in 1999 is an awful book. Not only are readers never told what is factual and what is made up, the apparatus of the book is designed to compound the deception. The footnotes mix nonexistent sources ("P[aul] R[ae] to author, July 13, 1927") with real ones, and the index includes more than one hundred mentions of Morris's invented family and sixty-six mentions of Paul Rae. Perversely, given the unique access he was granted, Morris slights the Reagan presidency--that same index, for example, omits any mention of Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. (The Bork nomination"was important to [Reagan]," Morris told an interviewer."But I had a narrative story to tell, and I just didn't have the space for that.") Instead, Morris devoted twenty-eight of the book's thirty-seven chapters to Reagan's pre-presidential years, most of them larded with accounts of what Morris's invented characters were up to. As for the presidential chapters, they are riddled with errors of commission (including a medically bizarre claim that the blood transfused into Reagan after he was shot in 1981, some of it refrigerated, was what diminished his capacities toward the end of his second term) and of omission, such as Morris's slighting of Reagan's economic policies and his 1984 reelection campaign.
Morris continues to defend his approach to Dutch, but fortunately Theodore Rex is unpolluted by it. All 864 pages are about Roosevelt's seven years as president, and all the words, events, and people one finds on these pages are authentic. The skills of writing, research, narrative, and interpretation that made The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt so wonderful are on full display. And although Morris does not pretend to have witnessed anything he describes personally, he brings Roosevelt and his times fully alive.
Joseph Ellis invented an alternate Ellis for his students, a man of physical courage who fought in Vietnam and a man of moral courage who returned home to protest against the war. Edmund Morris invented an alternate Morris for his readers, someone who had a lifelong relationship with Ronald Reagan and keen insights into Reagan's character. Ellis was punished with suspension from teaching, and Morris was punished with bad reviews. Morris has redeemed himself with Theodore Rex, and one can only trust that Ellis will redeem himself as well, both as an author and as a teacher.
Can anything be learned from these historians' experiences? Each seems to have been benignly motivated by a desire to bring the past alive, for students in Ellis's case and for readers in Morris's. But each of them underestimated his audience, convinced that unless he could provide them with"I-was-there" authenticity, their attention would drift away. The irony is that Ellis and Morris should have known from personal experience that they were wrong. Morris had brought Theodore Roosevelt to life for millions of readers, and Ellis had done the same to the"founding brothers" for thousands of students. Both had succeeded as master tellers of true stories based entirely on factual evidence.
And what of the quest for a Big Lesson to tie Ellis and Morris's experiences to those of McCullough and Beschloss, Ambrose and Goodwin? Nothing terribly original, but how about dusting off this old axiom: seeing and telling the truth as best one can is the highest scholarly calling. Ambrose and Godwin betrayed that calling by stealing the work of others and passing it off as their own. Ellis and Morris betrayed it by making things up and portraying those things as true. Academic critics of Beschloss and McCullough betray it whenever they cloak turfmanship, envy, and ideological disdain in the garb of authentic scholarly criticism. In each case, scholars whose accomplishments as tellers of truth are otherwise distinguished have gotten off track. And in each case, deservedly, they have paid the price.
This piece originally ran in the Virginia Quarterly Review and is reprinted with permission.
comments powered by Disqus
david e jennings - 12/21/2009
I certainly feel defrauded. I am two thirds of the way through a book I had thought a remarkable tour de force, but now dis inclined to finish; a patent waste of time. I am sure I would have felt differently if the literary device employed had been revealed in a more transparent way. I had thought real insights were revealed in the parallel lives lived but had puzzled at the liner notes which noted a birth in Kenya and had reread the first section of the book trying to resolve the discrepancy. I did not realize the parallel lives were those of a real and fictional author. I did not discover the fact until I stopped to Google "Gavin Morris, Weather Underground", hoping to discover the fate of 'his son' and discovered this article instead.
May I have my time, and money back, please?
Ellen Ruth - 12/4/2002
I am looking for a good biography of Thomas Edison for an adult who is an inventor and is very interested in the creative process. Could you please recommend one?
Thank you very much,
Ellen Ruth - 12/4/2002
I am looking for a good biography of Thomas Edison for an adult who is an inventor and is very interested in the creative process. Could you please recommend one?
Thank you very much,
Thomas L. Spencer - 9/24/2002
This was just an itsy-bitsy tidbit from the notes. I'm not reviewing it, but there is more, much not related to Bellesiles, although this is woven into it. Items quoted out of context, evidence ommitted, slamming another author for allegedly getting things [several times] wrong, factually, when they really had it right all along [slipshod research], etc., etc..
Raymond Chandler - 9/23/2002
Mr. Luker is right. What Mr. Spencer describes so far does not even begin to approach the level of errors in Arming America. Further, Arming America says that the creation of a gun culture was well underway by the start of the Civil War, so the relevance of any shortages on the eve of the Civil War to Arming America is not entirely clear.
Ralph E. Luker - 9/23/2002
My impression is that you will need to find a great deal more than this before you have something worthy of more than a line or a paragraph in a book review.
Ralph E. Luker
Thomas L. Spencer - 9/23/2002
Here is a quote from one of the notes in the book that I mentioned; "Bellesiles work has come under hard criticism, mainly for his assertions regarding the colonial era. His writings on the antebellum period, however, reflect my own findings. At the start of the Civil War both sides suffered a severe shortage of firearms."
Not quite so. Military arms of a uniform caliber, perhaps. Many had to be imported from Europe. However, there were all sorts of civillian arms floating about and in many cases, particularly in the Western and Trans-Mississippi theaters, Southern forces armed themselves with anything, in any caliber, for the first year of the war. Even beyond that in certain areas, particularly with the cavalry, which sometimes carried shotguns or single shot pistols well into the conflict..
The author here failed to explain what he used for his "own findings".Maybe he has access to those mysterious San Francisco Court records that vanished in 1906? This, and the cite of Bellesiles book, didn't send up red flags.
John G. Fought - 9/23/2002
Hey, watch it: I just calmed down and stopped throwing sand.
Actually, I took out a few sentences I had put in on parallels with the history of American linguistics, which is what I published on for most of the second half of my career. Roughly the same role that is played by dates and events and names in history is played in linguistics by the sounds and structures of data on specific languages in linguistics: there is after all a substantive foundation. The answer to your question however depends on the relative eminence of the linguist who misrepresents the facts and theories. There was a lot of willful misunderstanding and misrepresentation all along, and a lot of very partisan gatekeeping in my field too. And the overall outcome, as you might guess, had more to do with the ideology of the 60s and the related Chomsky cult than anything else. What is politely called a paradigm shift is very nasty to experience from the inside. The winners were never wrong about anything. They're just even more right about it all now than before. Just one example: a very well known linguist came to Penn to give a talk, and in it he laid out a system of categories and terms to cover a classic analytic problem arising from the basics of language structure that had been covered better in a famous paper written twenty years earlier (and not quite so well before that, back into the 1890s). When I asked him, rather testily, if he had read it, he started to say he had, but then said, "Well, not really. There was no point. It's pretheoretical." Sound familiar? And now, of course, his system has all dried up and blown away. Only the data and relations remain, waiting to be 'discovered' again. As they always say when it's already too late, don't get me started. I promise: no more linguistics here.
Thomas Gunn - 9/22/2002
As a complete and total outsider, I am at liberty to say what I will without fear of any reprisal. Not so Ralph who of necessity is much more intimately connected to the system that has the power of nay or yea over his fortunes. And who has felt the sting of those perceiving him not to be a team player. To a lesser extent John is also subject to similar machinations, but far enough removed from this particular system to feel secure in offering an honest appraisal.
One wonders, if a linguist of note published a work of fiction purporting to prove the second's words were totally misconstrued and based it on manufactured evidence and it followed the prevailing political view, how quickly lesser linguists would move to condemn it.
The problem for me is; I hate to have to do it again. If we don't make an accurate record of our history, if we allow our politics or our feelings to color the reporting we will be doing this all over again. History proves it.
Unfortunately as long as sinners rather than saints rule the world evil will exist. In the end tyrants and those who oppose them will survive. They will both be gun owners. Good will overcome evil only because some good men are willing to be more ruthless than their oppressors. And the cycle will start anew. Aint I the cheerful one? ;-0)
Ralph E. Luker - 9/22/2002
"I have seen too many good and talented people wronged and driven out of the academic profession by its grandees. I have seen too many careerists steal what they can't win fairly." I couldn't have said it better myself.
John G. Fought - 9/22/2002
I am encouraged by your latest message, and I agree with almost everything you say after the first sentence. It is not exactly credulity that I see in your postings, but rather a kind of misplaced and reflexive loyalty to the existing system that you direct at outsiders who criticize its workings or its products, alternating this with what seems like genuine concern about the same matters when exchanging messages with those you know. I hope you will give this some consideration, because, believe it or not, I prefer allies to enemies. As for my tone in writings to and about you, you may call it snide if you wish, but do not mistake it for personal animosity or a lack of seriousness on my part. I will treat any exemplar or defender of gross abuses in the academic teaching and research system with the strongest medicine I can deliver. I have seen too many good and talented people wronged and driven out of the academic profession by its grandees. I have seen too many careerists steal what they can't win fairly. I am not in this for fun, but because the outcome is important to everyone, and because systems so well entrenched are not easily changed. Perhaps we can agree on that much.
Ralph E. Luker - 9/22/2002
Your repeated snide remarks about my credulity are the sort of personal attack which inhibit other professional historians from being willing to engage in this sort of public discussion. Both of my articles on HNN acknowledge the possibility that fraud has been committed and emphasize that, if it has, responsibility for being taken in by it is quite broadly shared among "the principalities and powers" in my profession. I have publicly and privately urged my fellow historians to take that reality with great seriousness.
The hard reality is that none of us has the energy, money and time to do a major source checking of everything we read. If I am asked to review a book manuscript for a press, its pitiful stipend will in no way cover the expense of time and money to go to all the archives where the author claims to have done research to check her or his use of sources. The consequence is that we must rely on a degree of professional trust. The hard reality of that is that occasionally there are breaches of that trust.
It is now past time for the _Journal of American History_ to make some public acknowledgement of whatever failure may have occurred in its peer review processes of Michael Bellesiles' 1996 article. My sense is that had the journal asked an expert in quantification or in the use of estate records to review the piece, problems would have been flagged early on, we might have been spared this controvery and Michael Bellesiles might have been spared his career.
John G. Fought - 9/22/2002
Mr. Spencer asks a couple of reasonable questions about review; Mr. Luker gives some inadvertently revealing answers.
Let me take each of the questions in turn, giving my opinions as a former academic who has recently taken an even greater interest in this topic. Evidently at least some important
academic books on history have not been reviewed very carefully by academics either before or after publication. It's hard to say right now how widespread misconduct by writers and reviewers
may be. I do know that it can be found in my field, linguistics, as well, and that there also, people are generally not grateful to the finders.
Whether dissertations get careful attention from faculty supervisors depends on many things, but not all get it. Usually there is enough overlap in interest and knowledge between author and supervisor to prevent a student from putting anything through that the supervisor doesn't believe in, but that alone doesn't settle the question of which is right. With term papers, normally student research is not deep enough or broad enough to cause a problem: most of the sources will be assigned readings familiar to the course supervisor and to the graduate assistants who often do the actual reading and grading. Fabrications are rare, and usually stand out clearly. The closer the author and the reviewer are in rank and seniority, however, the more likely it is that the review will be perfunctory, if favorable, or savagely negative. As you say, the implications are not good. Peer review is mostly taken for granted or automatically defended as working well enough, or regarded as the best practical process even when it is seen not to work at all. In the humanities, there is little formal attention to it; in biomedical and physical science, it gets much more attention. There are even conferences on it. The procedures to be followed, and those that researchers are expected to follow to provide raw material for investigation when there's trouble, are spelled out in considerable detail. Many of the manuals (including those setting out procedures required by the granting agencies) are available online. A search on 'peer review' will show the preponderance of material from the laboratory sciences on this topic.
Now for Mr. Luker. He first says, paraphrasing a former president of the AHA, that "there is a betrayal of trust here. Normally, one expects to be able to rely on the accuracy of the published work of fellow historians." The implications for the vitality and rigor of peer review among senior history scholars are obvious. Members of the club will not be rigorously checked: they will be trusted. Then, in his next posting, Mr. Luker asks what process "would produce better results than a peer review process that worked properly. In fact, one of Bellesiles' most severe critics argues that peer review is not even intended to filter out a work like AA because one ordinarily assumes that an author has not manufactured evidence." I will admit that I was surprised by the scope of the fabrications and 'errors' in AA. But I wonder now just what peer review is expected to filter out, if not fabrications. What kind of checking can be done without revealing that a source, or a quotation, or a fact has been fabricated, but that might somehow reveal other kinds of errors? Answer: the kind that doesn't get done in the first place. The kind that both Mr. Luker and the former president of the AHA expect to be applied to the work of one's 'fellow historians.' It is remarks like these, and the too-widespread attitude that they spring from, that are so damaging to the credibility of academic research in general: by not admitting that misconduct has taken place and then dealing with it, the paying public is made understandably reluctant to trust any published research without first laboriously checking what we are told has already been 'reviewed'. We are left to wonder just how much bad stuff has gone through the process without tripping any alarms. Let me approach Mr. Luker's self-contradictory views from another angle. He went on to suspect that Knopf did no peer review of the book ms, but "swept" it into print for the money from big sales. Like Mr. Spencer, I don't doubt it. But Bellesiles' 1996 article contains the key arguments of the book, and almost identical tables of bogus probate counts, and it was published in a peer reviewed history journal, winning a prize as best article of the year. So greed is not the only motive in action here, though it has surely played a part all along. Knopf is only a part of the problem. Attitudes like Mr. Luker's are also a part of it. If you trace his contributions to the discussion of the Bellesiles case, in both short comments and longer postings, you will find a pattern of general defenses of the integrity of the history profession and of the adequacy of its existing procedures and safeguards, alternating with admonitions to outsiders to stay out of this or to wait while the process goes to completion. My own views are quite different. I don't believe that a profession can have integrity: only each of the individuals making it up can have or lack this quality. One does not become trustworthy by getting a Ph.D. I think that the Bellesiles case, all by itself, is enough to demonstrate that existing safeguards are not working well. And I don't believe the process of identifying misconduct would even have started in the Bellesiles case if outsiders had not dug into the mess and exposed it. No historian has produced a document on this case comparable to Mr. Lindgren's article posted here and printed elsewhere. I notice few responses to it here, and none from Mr. Luker. Indeed, what is there left to say about that book? So yes, Mr. Gunn, some people have learned more than they would have otherwise. Is there any hope that Mr. Luker may someday be one of them? Perhaps we will see, now that another work appears to have been caught, apparently much earlier in the publication cycle than _Arming America_. If the response to Bellesiles' work -- though delayed, and coming from outside the history establishment -- has raised the bar for other authors, then so much the better for those who forced such a change.
Thomas L. Spencer - 9/22/2002
Your comments about Knopf are to the point. You are dealing with part of a big conglomerate where the bottom line apparently is, now, the bottom line. It used to be that certain publishing companies were careful about what they got into. In the case I mention the publisher got the book at auction, bidding against several different publishers, based on ONE chapter and an outline of the rest of the book. The contract ended, reportedly, in the six figure range. In this mass media world, books are sold like Hollywood scripts. It's what one friend has called
The book is well written, which masks it's flaws, many central to the core points of the authors's thesis. I don't want to get into it, but I was dumbfounded that some people didn't at least look beyond the surface here when "reviewing" it. As I mentioned before, if it had been a student with a thesis or dissertation, would they have joined the lemming run? The book I speak of has both errors of commission and ommission throughout. You would have thought that someone with even a basic knowledge of historical method would have caught some of these.
Ralph E. Luker - 9/21/2002
Professor Fought is characteristically uncivil in this most recent post. I had seen an earlier electronic form of the _VQR_ article, circulated by the _Chronicle of Higher Education_, and suggested that the editor of HNN post the article here. Having seen two electronic texts of the piece with no textual variations, except for title, and with Thomas Gunn's link offering the original title, I thought I could save Professor Fought a trip to the library. I am happy that he has satisfied his skeptical self and will be proud to hang whatever needlework he wishes to tat for me. Get a life ...
John G. Fought - 9/21/2002
Thanks again, Mr. Gunn, for your link to the original text. By now I am unable to share Mr. Luker's cheerful assumption that the two versions would certainly be identical, so 'there's no need to run off to the library for it'. The phrase would make a lovely needlepoint sampler for any historian's office wall. What would it take to rouse him to skepticism? Even though in this case the texts of both versions are in fact the same, apart from the titles, I would prefer, Mr. Luker, to soldier on without your advice.
The titles are instructively different, I think: in the Virginia Quarterly Review, 'a national journal of literature and discussion', not a scholarly journal of history, the Nelson article was titled The Good, the Bad, and the Phony: Six famous historians and their critics'. Now that I've read it several times, I find the conclusion irritatingly trite: must six diverse scholars be divided into three pairs? Did each (forgive me) achieve closure, having paid what Nelson feels is 'the price' of each one's quite different transgressions?
I'd like the HNN editor(s) to reconsider their practice of (selectively!) making up titles for contributed works that come in with titles written by their authors. I think they cause needless trouble for all: this is one example.
E.A. - 9/21/2002
Given that the number of books that could possibly fit your description is limited, I think it is somewhat irresponsible of you to offer a rumor like this.
Ralph E. Luker - 9/21/2002
Assume, Thomas, that Bellesiles is guilty of _everything_ charged against him in _AA_. What process would you put in place to prevent a similar situation? My sense is that there is no process conceivable which would produce better results than a peer review process that worked properly. In fact, one of Bellesiles' most severe critics argues that peer review is not even intended to filter out a work like _AA_ because one ordinarily assumes that an author has not manufactured evidence.
Political bias may have played a role in all of this, but I suspect that if you could get an honest answer from Alfred A. Knopf you would find that there was no peer review of the book manuscript -- that the prospect of sales simply swept the book into publication. Moreover, the controversy itself enhances the marketability of the book. Michael might well be saying "Keep those attacks coming," as his bank account swells.
By the way, if all that critics of this other book can find is that it relies on Bellesiles for some of its evidence and one point of its argument, there isn't much scandal here. Its author can simply respond that Bellesiles betrayed a trust and that he or she misplaced trust.
Thomas Gunn - 9/21/2002
Williams and now Spencer allude to "knowing" more than they are willing to share. I was hoping for more on the scandal, and thought you might have more to share.
I do notice that you are no longer defending the process or the principals with your previous vehemence. Good for you. Maybe you're just tired.
One good thing to come of the Bellesiles scandal is alot of people are learning the history they failed to absorb in High School and the importance of it.
Ralph E. Luker - 9/20/2002
What's to say, Thomas, beyond your apt: "The plot sickens ...." As a former president of the AHA said to me: there is a betrayal of professional trust here. Normally, one expects to be able to rely on the accuracy of the published word of fellow historians. Trust has taken a beating and it is, perhaps, an important lesson for all of us.
Thomas Gunn - 9/20/2002
[The book used Michael Bellsiles' book . . .]
The plot sickens.
I wonder if Don Williams has a comment, or Ralph Luker?
Thomas L. Spencer - 9/20/2002
I am not at liberty to discuss this at length yet, but can tell you that there is yet another book waiting in the wings for further scandal. Investigation into the sources is presently ongoing. The book has gotten rave reviews by some historians whose names you'd easily recognize. The book used Michael Bellesiles' book as a key source, in several places, for one of the major points, which should have raised red flags.
Question: Do professional historians in academia read books they review carefully enough? If this were a dissertation would it get the same attention? A student's term paper? The implications are not good.
Thomas L. Spencer
Thomas L. Spencer - 9/20/2002
I am not at liberty to discuss this at length yet, but can tell you that there is yet another book waiting in the wings for further scandal. Investigation into the sources is presently ongoing. The book has gotten rave reviews by some historians whose names you'd easily recognize. The book used Michael Bellsiles' book as a key source, in several places, for one of its' major points, which should have raised red flags.
Question: Do professional historians in academia read books they review carefully enough? If this were a dissertation would it get the same attention? A student with a term paper? The implications are not good.
Thomas L. Spencer
E.A. - 9/20/2002
I agree with Jensen.
McCullough has been ill treated. He quoted others who had not actually misquoted Jefferson, but rather mispunctuated the quote. McCullough did not make up the quote.
And TJ did call Adams the "Colossus of that Congress--the great pillar of support to the Declaration of Independence." Shortening it to the "Collosus of . . . Independence" is a bold move, but one that was first made by others. More importantly, such an ellipsis is not unfair to TJ's meaning. So McCullough's CRIME is that he quoted TJ's words accurately, except that he did not show an ellipsis (even though the omitted language did not change TJ's meaning).
For mispunctuating a quotation (which was not even initially his error), McCullough's honesty or overall competence was questioned. Given the complacency and lack of candor in the Bellesiles affair shown by nearly every historical institution, I find the criticism of McCullough bizarre and unprincipled by comparison. From reading the criticisms of McCullough, you would think that the academic history profession had actual standards of conduct in doing research that they cared about, observed, and policed.
Richard Jensen - 9/20/2002
Jefferson DID say it, according to TJ's friend William Wirt--Wirt gave the official Eulogy in Congress:
"Mr. Jefferson has told us that 'the Colossus of that Congress-the great pillar of support to the Declaration of Independence, and its ablest advocate and champion on the floor of the House, was John Adams.'"
Wirt had numerous conversations with TJ about 1776 in preparation for a biography of Patrick Henry that Wirt wrote, with TJ's help.
I might add that in a private letter from President TJ to Wirt, Jan. 10, 1808 TJ wrote, "By supporting them you will lay for yourself a broad foundation in the public confidence, and indeed you will become the Colossus of the republican government of your country."
I found the quotes in the Bergh edition of the TJ papers, v 13 p. xxiv, which is online at: http://www.constitution.org/tj/tj-categ.htm
Dale Hinote - 9/19/2002
The real tragedy is that the work of popular historians like McCollough and Beschloss crowds out even more competent and readable efforts by academic historians. It's like Hollywood vs Independent Film. An example: Alonzo Hamby's Harry s Truman, Man of the People, came out almost exactly at the same time as McCollough's Truman. Hamby's book, published by Oxford, got remaindered in the end, while McCollough hit the best-seller list. Any enlightened reader who has encountered both would likely find Hamby as entertaining and far deeper, the result of a lifetime of professional scholarship on his subject. I am an academic historian who has small regard for those of us who write only for each other, but I believe that in the current climate our options are limited in that respect.
Alec Lloyd - 9/18/2002
This is an excellent article and the omission of Bellesiles does not trouble me at all. It is clear that the problem confronting historians today is more than just "one man, acting alone."
The pursuit of academic credentials instead of meritorious works has reached an all-time high. One of my older professors remarked that when he started in the field, many of the faculty had only masters degrees and it was the most senior members of the departments who had their doctorates. Now, the minimum level of education acceptable for any position is a doctorate and top-level historians are expected to do extensive post-graduate work.
The thing of it is, history as a field is in worse shape, not better. Where now are the Cornelius Ryans, Bruce Cattons and Walter Lords. Which faculty will hire them? I decided against grad school on the advice of my instructors who pointed out that the field that interested me most, classical Western history, was dying. There were no open posts anywhere and this was unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.
At first I attributed this to the rise in undergraduate (and by association) graduate students. However, Camille Paglia has recently pointed out that there is actually a shortage of traditional Western history instructors and that the reason for the perceived “glut” is that new “post-modern” majors such as “gender studies” and “women’s studies” are sucking the life out of the humanities departments.
Certainly this is the case at Michigan State University, where the history department has been downgraded and shrunk to make way for new, “politically correct” areas. Even the crown jewel of the university, the African Studies program speaks of fighting “rear-guard” actions against the new fads which alter history in the name of “sensitivity” and racial quotas. While MSU is a noted exception, there is a movement to prevent white faculty from teaching “black” history (as if Africa is a monolithic ethnic entity), a position roundly condemned at MSU but which is tormenting its graduating doctoral candidates. The rot is spreading.
Such issues are clearly beyond the scope of this excellent article, but by ignoring the Bellesiles controversy, Professor Nelson highlights the growing sense of history as a field for “guild members” only. Much of his points about how credentialed authors are given passes whilst “laymen” are treated with contempt is apropos to the Bellesiles case.
His point that historians have lost sight of the purpose of history is also well made. Who would want to go into history after being exposed to an endless parade of politically correct victims and increasingly esoteric course offerings as an undergrad? When no one signs up for these offerings, the departments make them required, even if they can’t find a professor to teach them, thus you have video-taped lectures to bored conscript students. Truly, history is in a sad state.
The problem is that while the professional historians have grown weary of the “same old stuff,” a new generation has never experienced it. Our tenured mandarins may thirst for monographs on the social impact of left-handed blind dentists in eighteenth century London, but no one else cares. For them, the imagery of Washington crossing the Delaware (or Caesar crossing the Rubicon) is still new and fresh. Three thousand years are now relegated to the “Dead White Male” dustbin, as if Pericles, St. Augustine, Chaucer and Voltaire all hailed from the same ethnic group.
What a shame that 1,200 historians can rouse themselves to petition Congress on a purely political question (and one they ultimately have no effect on) whilst their own field collapses into obscurity and irrelevance.
This article is a wake-up call. Let us hope it is heeded.
Ralph E. Luker - 9/17/2002
Thomas's link gives the original title of the article. Unless one suspects that HNN has posted an inaccurate rendition of the VQR article, there's no need to run off to the library for it.
Thomas Gunn - 9/17/2002
The article in the 'quarterly' is referenced in several other places but so far a copy is not to be had on the web.
I'd be interested in the outcome of your search.
I rather enjoy HNN in spite of the fact I was a History Hater in high school.
John G. Fought - 9/17/2002
Thanks. The nearest college library has that number on the shelf. I'll have a look.
Thomas Gunn - 9/17/2002
You of course are correct. However, in the first paragraph, when I saw the words "Michael Beschloss", I read "Michael Bellesiles". I had to read it several times to recognize my error.
BTW, I note you signed the infamous "Historians' Petition", yet no response to Don Kates' article in this same issue. I'm looking forward to another round of 'Democracy in action'. ;-)
Thomas Gunn - 9/17/2002
This may help:
This is a guess, I am currently unable to find a copy of the original article.
John G. Fought - 9/17/2002
As Elephant at the Tea Party, of course. Like Clayton Cramer, I thought Bellesiles must have been included in the article. I just couldn't find him. I had trouble not reading 'Beschloss' as 'Bellesiles'. I finally searched the text, and he wasn't there!
The article's title thus casts a strange light on the text, it seems to me. I would argue that Bellesiles is the worst thing to have happened in what I'm tempted to call recorded history. Yet,
here he isn't. (Perhaps this wasn't Mr. Nelson's title. I'd
be interested in knowing if it was.) To restrict the scrutiny of history writers to 'best-selling authors' seem also to go against the general flow of disdain for them from the established academic profession.
I don't want to seem ungrateful to Mr. Nelson, however. I found what he actually did write to be interesting and well crafted. I don't mean to criticise him for not writing the piece I thought I was reading, but I would like to know something more about how the article came to have the scope he gave it. Why omit B?
Ralph E. Luker - 9/17/2002
You misread the article, Clayton. It does not mention Bellesiles, suggesting perhaps that his work is in a different category altogether.
Clayton E. Cramer - 9/17/2002
What amazes me about this article is that Professor Nelson mentions Bellesiles's name at the very beginning--and never gets back to him. What Bellesiles did is worse than lying about what he did (as Ellis did), plagiarizing (as Ambrose and Goodwin did), and vastly worse than being a successful popular historian (as Beschloss and McCullough did).
Bellesiles fabricated data; altered quotes; and then lied about these in an attempt to protect his position. Yet the historical profession has been astonishingly uncritical of these violations of professional standards. And yet they go after Beschloss and McCullough for, as Professor Nelson observes, lacking the union card. Amazing.
Ralph E. Luker - 9/17/2002
Mt. Holyoke has taken the right course of action in re: Joseph Ellis. He is, without doubt, a fine scholar. I know many historians, some of them better than I care to. It should be no surprise that, being human, some of them lie. Some of them do not get caught in their lies. Others get caught in them and pay no professional penalty for it. Joseph Ellis has paid a very heavy price for his deception. He will have to live with the foolishness. If we were to bar all liars from classrooms, the job market would be wide open and there would be few eligible candidates in it.
Van L. Hayhow - 9/17/2002
This was a very good article. As to Mr. Kates' comment, it does seem that Ellis's books are unrelated to his fabrications. But as someone who read the original Boston Globe articles and has followed this story, it appears that Ellis is not just a liar, but a serial liar. Isn't it strange that it doesn't seem to have affected his books?
don kates - 9/17/2002
Joseph Ellis is a terrific historical writer who imposed upon his students w/ a bizarre set of personal falsehoods. Maybe he should be barred from the classroom. But his bizarre personal behavior should dissuade no one from reading his fine historical books.