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In Defense of Stephen Ambrose

On the Ambrose case, five distinct issues need to be disentangled.

First, we have celebrity bashing. Not only Ambrose, but several other widely known historians have come under rather savage attack recently. It's hardly a wonder that student knowledge of history is plunging when the craft is under such ridicule. The notion is abroad that our best known writers are frauds (a thought that doubtless reassures tens of thousands of students who are busy cutting and pasting at this moment). As for the quality of Ambrose's scholarship, I have carefully read several of his books and I find his research and writing outstanding. His work on Eisenhower and Nixon, for example, is the best scholarship out there, and everyone else depends on him. He shows a remarkable command of primary sources.

Second, there is the charge of 'plagiarism.' Let's be scholars here. It is defined by the American Historical Association's statement as:

"The expropriation of another author's text, and the presentation of it as one's own, constitutes plagiarism....The clearest abuse is the use of another's language without quotation marks and citation." (http://www.theaha.org/standard_02.htm)
Turning to the Chicago Manual of Style, section 10.3 states:
"Whenever authors paraphrase or quote from sources directly, they should give credit to words and ideas taken from others. In most instances a note ... is sufficient acknowledgment."
Webster's 3rd International Dictionary defines to"plagiarize" as:
"to steal and pass off as one's own (the ideas or words of another); use (a created production) without crediting the source 'a learned book of his had been coolly plagiarized and issued in short version' Times Literary Supplement' // to commit literary theft: present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source"
From a university guide at http://www.library.ualberta.ca/guides/plagiarism/terminology.html:
"Deliberate Plagiarism: Waltman describes intentional plagiarism as"the wholesale copying of another's paper with the intention of representing it as one's own" (Lathrop and Foss 163). In addition, the definition of deliberate or intentional plagiarism includes the theft of another person's ideas."
Thus the scholarly meaning of plagiarism involves taking the ideas or creative achievements of someone else and presenting them as your own, with a deception of the reader. Somehow we have reached a point where non-historians in the mass media are on the loose with a new definition, one that drops the deception requirement and instead searches for strings of identical alphanumeric characters (Indeed there are computer programs that do just exactly this.). Journalist Timothy Noah on the PBS"News Hour" [1-28-02] said it flatly:"The quotation marks are the key thing that defines plagiarism." This I suggest is a perversion of humanistic scholarship and needs to be stamped out.

The professional rule for humanities scholars is clear: plagiarism is an attempt to deceive the reader by using a source AND by not footnoting it. Students, alas, do this all the time. They copy entire encyclopedia articles and sign them as their own work. The AHA definition has recently been endorsed by the Organization of American Historians. By the AHA standard, Ambrose has not been guilty of plagiarism.

I have looked at the allegations published on the WWW, and 'not one' meets the AHA test.

In no case has Ambrose ever tried to deceive the audience or left out the citations. In every instance that has been cited, Ambrose paraphrased sources and footnoted them correctly. That is 'exactly' the technique professional historians teach their students. The suggestion that when students do that they would be severely punished by the university is a false canard -- and shows the degraded level of the debate (The assertion is made without footnotes or references to any sources--a sin that Ambrose has always avoided.). The main charges seem to come from a writer at Forbes magazine, who clearly does not understand scholarship. He, for example, makes the charge that Ambrose plagiarized the popular historian Cornelius Ryan. Ryan had interviewed generals and included their exact words in his book. Ambrose quoted the exact words, attributing them to the general, and citing a secondary source that referenced Ryan. Ambrose did not use a singe word written by Ryan -- and yet Forbes calls foul. Repeatedly Forbes charges plagiarism when Ambrose tries to capture in the original words the original feelings of one of his characters, such as George McGovern. Forbes is saying that Ambrose is trying to deceive readers into believing that the words attributed to McGovern in 1945 were really Ambrose's thoughts 55 years later. This is preposterous.

The third level involves a historian's use of primary source material which is taken not from the original manuscript but second-hand from a secondary source. Every scholar does this because of the obvious impossibility of reading every source that exists. (On World War Two, there are millions of pages of documents in many languages.) In every case, Ambrose paraphrased the secondary sources he used, and footnoted them. That is what we teach our students to do. Here's an example of one of the crimes cited by Forbes and repeated by HNN: can you spot the plagiarism?

Monaghan, pg. 11:"Boy and man, Custer preferred to express himself on paper rather than orally."
Ambrose, pg. 92:"After school he would write of his emotions to her--boy and man, Autie always found it easier to say what he felt on paper rather than to speak it out..."
[Answer, Ambrose shamelessly duplicated the three words"Boy and man"].
The critics I suppose would insist on this punctuation:"After school he would write of his emotions to her--"boy and man," Autie always found it easier to say what he felt"on paper rather than" to speak it out..."

Ambrose's crime turns out to be--bad punctuation! Note that the revised punctuation badly garbles the statement and surely confuses the reader. Freshman are taught to dip their fingers in a holy water font and sprinkle their text with dots, thereby averting the dreaded F-for-Plagiarism. This undergraduate wisdom has been twisted into the dogma that anyone who neglects the dots is doomed to eternal perdition.

Here's a more interesting Forbes-crime:

Monaghan describes Custer's return to the U.S. Military Academy after a furlough:"On August 28, 1859, Custer returned to West Point. Cadet James Barroll Washington, a great-great-grandnephew of George Washington, entered that year. He remembered hearing the crowd shout, 'Here comes Custer!' The name meant nothing to him, but he turned, and saw a slim, immature lad with unmilitary figure, slightly rounded shoulders, and gangling walk."
Here is Mr. Ambrose's version:"When he returned to West Point, Cadet James B. Washington, a relative of George Washington, remembered hearing the crowd shout, 'Here comes Custer!' The name meant nothing to Washington, who was just entering the Academy, but he turned and saw a slim, immature lad with unmilitary figure, slightly rounded shoulders, and gangling walk, surrounded by back-slapping, laughing friends."
Notice that Ambrose paraphrased Monaghan's words, and did NOT mindlessly repeat them. He cited the source; there is no deception. The critics never say what Ambrose should have done. I suppose they believe that punctuation something like this is right:
When he"returned to West Point, Cadet James" B."Washington," a relative"of George Washington,""remembered hearing the crowd shout, 'Here comes Custer!' The name meant nothing" to Washington, who was just entering the Academy,"but he turned and saw a slim, immature lad with unmilitary figure, slightly rounded shoulders, and gangling walk," surrounded by back-slapping, laughing friends.
Note that Monaghan did NOT use quotes to tell us what adjectives he took from the documents, and which ones he invented out of thin air. In fact, the words Ambrose quoted are not Monaghan's. He got them from a letter written by a Westpointer. Ambrose correctly quoted the primary source --and did NOT use Monaghan's words or ideas. This exculpating factoid Forbes could have discovered in two minutes using google.com to find this link: http://www.c-span.org/guide/books/booknotes/chapter/fc101396.htm)

Forbes's writer is an incompetent historian; is he someone the historical profession should turn to for ethical guidance? I looked at the current issue: Forbes has many editors and writers who effortlessly generate tens of thousands of nonfictional factoids and idealets, even some purported history. There are no footnotes, citations or bibliographies -- no references to any primary or secondary sources at all. Every paragraph seems to contain facts and ideas, yet none are referenced. Forbes is a rather strange seminary for the education of scholarly exegetes and ethicists. Forbes also publishes American Heritage--that must be its graduate school. Mark Twain once advised, never argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel. So instead of suing Forbes, Ambrose should ship them a barrel of quotation marks, and a thousand gross of Ibids.

Thus the outside critics worship those sacred quote marks, thereby privileging the secondary source as more important than the original text. This is heresy, and in the Custer story, it is the devil's work. What you have are two different scholars (Monaghan and Ambrose) approaching the same original episode. Monaghan clearly did not see the original letter (he misattributed it) -- so Monaghan used some secondary source, which in turn was based on who-knows-what. Use of secondary sources requires a footnote and Ambrose always obliges. Getting the facts right is what scholarship is all about--piling up quotes inside of quotes is not a shortcut nor a sacred duty. If the heretics' standards were to be applied, scholarship would come to a screeching halt. And"readers" would"scream" at the"punctuated garbage" they"would be""offered" [Should we write that way??]. Paraphrases that are too close to the secondary source are sins say the heretics--and yet scholarship requires the historian to get as close as possible to the original word.

I might add that Forbes and that ilk have failed to do their basic scholarly research--they did not check the primary ur-source against either Ambrose or the secondary source. They ignore the central rule of all scholarly history: Be True to the Sources.

The fourth level involved here is how historians write narrative history from the sources. I think the goal is to get as close as possible to the original actors, and using their words and descriptions or explanations is vital. This is what distinguishes history from fiction. We stick close to the facts and to the words. Ambrose has done a very good job of that, and that's what makes his books realistic, convincing and popular. He does not rely on a theoretical jargon --incantations like"gender/class/race" that are six stages removed from the sources. This last issue, the fifth and lowest one, seems to be where his academic critics are coming from. If Ambrose does not chant their sacred jargon he must be cast out and delegitimized. That is a sad plight for the once honorable history profession.