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Strain at a Gnat, but Swallow a Camel: With Ambrose and Goodwin in Mind

Not unlike Ivanhoe, I am going to enter the lists so far as the furor is concerned at present over the alleged (or actual) plagiarism of Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin. There is a good discussion of the issues involved by John R. Dichtl, Deputy Director of the Organization of American Historians (OAH)


But, with the imagery of knight-errantry uppermost in mind, let me at least hope in what follows that I am unlike Don Quixote, who tilted at windmills, as if insane, on his trusty Rozinante. In thrusting my lance, of course, against plagiarism (what honest historian would not?), I also have a greater target in view. Let me open the reader's eyes to that vista by quoting Matthew 23:24, where Jesus admonished the scribes and Pharisees:"Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel." In the previous verse Jesus made clear what his concern was with the Jewish authorities of his day, specifically their failure to see beyond the letter of the law to the deeper truths of faith. For, as he said in closing verse 23:"these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone."

With the foregoing in mind, let the reader (historian or other interested person) ponder this--we, as historians, had better begin anew, what has not been practiced but seldom for generations now. That is, making any real effort (at least most of the time) to tell an engaging story in the writing of history. Here, while not excusing plagiarism (alleged or actual) in their books, Ambrose and Goodwin (the latter perhaps to a lesser extent) are trying to interest a wider public in history, not just other historians. Don't we already have enough of the latter in scores of journals, devoted to nothing much more than new methodologies"ad infinitum," most of which have more to do with the dictum"publish or perish" than enlightening anyone, and certainly not the intelligent lay reader? And, let me assure you--such people do exist beyond the sheltered (perhaps, could one say, insulated?) ivy walls of academia. Yet, few professional historians are making any serious attempt to get, much less hold, the attention of such people.

In fact, as I think further about the Ambrose-Goodwin"affair," however one may (and rightly) deplore the unfolding scandal, I am still reminded of a controversy during the Middle Ages. For, it was during that period of history, if memory serves me correctly, that the"scholastics," as they were called, had heated debates over the highly esoteric question, to wit:"How many angels could dance on the head of a pin?" [Click here to read the editor's note.]

My query though--why did such an unanswerable question engage so many good minds for so long? But, I have a second question for scholars, especially historians, living today--is not the present generation of historians so absorbed in what Roland N. Stromberg, European Intellectual History Since 1789 (1994), felicitously called a"methodological self-consciousness" that it may well result in paralysis? For, as Stromberg proceeded insightfully to point out:"Historians and anthropologists [from studying so much the processes, not the content of their writings, had become] paralyzed by 'a sort of epistemological hypochondria'." (p. 327) What, in the last analysis, is more important here--method (the letter of the law) or substance (the spirit of history)?

On the basis of that observation, it is my intent (and my hope) to hit the mark like unto Ivanhoe with his lance. That is, can't we, as historians, do more to engage the general public's mind without falling prey, of course, to such pitfalls as plagiarism? Whatever happened, to give a few examples, to the likes of Carl Becker, Charles Beard, Samuel Eliot Morison, and Barbara Tuchman in the last century, not to mention the likes of Francis Parkman, William H. Prescott, and Hubert Howe Bancroft of the nineteenth century? Those historians wrote fine histories without boring the reader to death! Regarding Becker, for instance, I very much doubt if I will ever forget the"sparking" of my intellect, as I began to read his The Heavenly City of Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (1932)--a classic by the time it was assigned to me in a history course, while an undergraduate at Ohio State University (1960-1964). And, though not referred to above, I can't help but note here the goodly number of hours (also, while attending Ohio State and making use of a copy in the main library on campus) devoted to reading from R. C. Buley's The Old Northwest: Pioneer Period, 1815-1840, 2 vols. (1951), awarded, by the way, a Pulitzer Prize.

Can't we then recapture the past, even if it means being less"scientific," assuming that's the right word? In concluding this, my plea for better, more engaging histories, which tell a good story (yet not neglect analytical precision), I would recommend that any and all professional historians read (or re-read, if need be) with profit Samuel Eliot Morison's"History as a Literary Art," in Harvard Guide to American History, ed. Oscar Handlin et al. (1954; 1963), pp. 44-49. And, in perusing that timeless essay, one might well take to heart the following sentence in particular, as quoted:"But what terrible stuff passes for English in Ph. D. dissertations, monographs, and articles in the historical reviews!" Need anymore be said?

Editor's Note According to Bergen Evans, The Spoor of Spooks (Knopf, 1954), pp. 38-39:"Actually there is no evidence that this topic was ever discussed by medieval philosophers, and it doesn't quite ring true as an example. It sounds like a mid-nineteenth century Protestant sneer, but it is faint and timid. Some of the propositions that were discussed are far more bizarre: What do angels do with material bodies that they used on some mission, but no longer require? Do angels defecate?"