Scott McLemee: Amazing Disgrace [of Michael Bellesiles]

Historians in the News

[Scott McLemee writes for Inside Higher Ed.]

The new titles that arrive from publishers each week usually come with promotional material that, apart from remembering to recycle, I carefully ignore. But over the past week -- thanks to an eagle-eyed colleague -- I have been making up for this practiced neglect by lingering over one publicist's letter in particular.

It is remarkable. It may be the most striking and provocative bit of prose concerning a scholarly book to have circulated in some while. The passage in question runs to one paragraph appearing about two-thirds of the way down the page of a note accompanying the page proofs for 1877: America’s Year of Living Violently by Michael A. Bellesiles, to be published by the New Press in August. Here it is:

“A major new work of popular history, 1877 is also notable as the comeback book for a celebrated U.S. historian. Michael Bellesiles is perhaps most famous as the target of an infamous ‘swiftboating’ campaign by the National Rifle Association, following the publication of his Bancroft Prize-winning book Arming America (Knopf, 2000) -- ‘the best kind of non-fiction,’ according to the Chicago Tribune -- which made daring claims about gun ownership in early America. In what became the history profession’s most talked-about and notorious case of the past generation, Arming America was eventually discredited after an unprecedented and controversial review called into question its sources, charges which Bellesiles and his many prominent supporters have always rejected.”

These sentences have absorbed and rewarded my attention for days on end. They are a masterpiece of evasion. The paragraph is, in its way, quite impressive. Every word of it is misleading, including “and” and “the.”

Bellesiles has a certain claim to fame, certainly, but not as “the target of an infamous ‘swiftboating’ campaign.” He is, and will be forever remembered as, a historian whose colleagues found him to have violated his profession's standards of scholarly integrity. Arming America won the Bancroft Prize -- the highest honor for a book on American history. But far more salient is the fact that the Bancroft committee took the unprecedented step of withdrawing the prize....

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