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Author: Mitchell Meltzer
Title: Plagiary, Falsification, and Fabrication in American Historiography
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

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Source: Plagiary, Falsification, and Fabrication in American Historiography
Mitchell Meltzer

vol. II, 2007
Article Type: Review
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Plagiary, Falsification, and Fabrication in American Historiography


Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Frauds - American History From Bancroft And Parkman To Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, And Goodwin

Peter C. Hoffer. Public Affairs, 2004: 287pages.

It may not be too great an exaggeration to maintain that the American historians of the present moment best known among the general public are most famous not for the depth of their knowledge of the nation’s past, nor the sharpness of their opinions about the present, but for their very public and scandalous dishonesty. Peter Charles Hoffer, a professor history at the University of Georgia and a member of the American Historical Association’s professional division, the ethical watchdog of the profession, has written a book examining the four most prominent of these historians in Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Frauds—American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis and Goodwin (PublicAffairs, 2004).

Hoffer’s book provides a complete and reliable account of the various accusations of dishonesty lodged against these four particular historians: Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Joseph Ellis, and Michael Bellesiles. Indeed, the second half of the book is devoted to a thorough and judicious review of the precise charges against each of these authors, the evidence from which these charges stem, and a fair-minded consideration of their various responses. For any reader who did not follow these individual cases when they were first reported in the press, or who wish to consult an extensive review of any or all of them, Hoffer’s chapters offer an admirably clear, coherent and well-documented version.

Hoffer divides these erring historians into three categories: plagiarists, falsifiers, and fabricators. The astonishingly productive and consistently best-selling Stephen Ambrose, best known perhaps for his histories of World War II soldiers, and his narrative of the Lewis and Clarke expedition, Undaunted Courage, and Doris Kearns Goodwin, a familiar television pundit, once a regular guest on PBS’s nightly Newshour, are the two plagiarists. Both authors have, in the course of composing their various volumes, simply copied substantial passages from the work of previous historians into their own text, unattributed, as if these were their own words. Each offered in footnote the quoted book, but with a range of pages, no page cited from which their words had been pilfered. In other words, neither author abided by the most elementary convention of scholarly integrity, not to say simple honesty: the use of quotation marks when citing words composed by others.

Hoffer cites an ample number of passages from both historians’ works to justify the indictment. From Ambrose, to give one of many instances, we are presented with this description of a radioman’s training from his book, The Wild Blue:

They began shooting skeet, then progressed to firing from moving platforms, from small arms to automatic weapons and finally to heavy machine guns. They learned how to operate the power-driven turrets, how to sight and swing them and their twin fifties.

And here are the words as originally used by their author, Thomas Childers, in his book, Wings of Morning:

There they shot skeet with a shotgun, then progressed to firing from moving platforms, first with small arms, then with automatic weapons and finally heavy machine guns. He learned how to operate the power-driven turrets, how to sight and swing them and their twin .50 calibers.

Goodwin’s practice was largely similar. This quotation from Goodwin's account of FDR, No Ordinary Time, should suffice to make clear the egregiousness of these procedures:

Eleanor quickly composed herself, walked back into the living room, and said in her most disarming manner, "It was kind of Mr.Aldrich to offer to be chairman, but is it not better from the point of view of geography to have someone from the Middle West?" At that, she turned immediately to Chicago philanthropist and New Deal loyalist Marshall Field; she knew it would be a bother for him, but could he accept? Though caught somewhat off guard, Field gave his assent.

Compare the passage to its source in Joseph Lash’s Eleanor and Franklin:

So Eleanor composed herself, returned to the living room, and said in her most disarming manner: "It is kind of Mr. Aldrich to offer to be chairman, but is it not better from the point of view of geography to have someone from the Middle West?"’ At that, she turned to Marshall Field; she knew it was a bothersome responsibility, she said, but could he accept the Chairmanship? Somewhat startled, the Chicago philanthropist and stalwart New Dealer did.

A student in any self-respecting undergraduate history department who engaged in this kind of verbal theft would, at the very least, be issued a stiff warning against plagiarism, pure and simple. Yet here are two professionally trained and accomplished historians repeatedly violating the minimum standards of scholarly integrity. More shocking than the fact of these violations in themselves—accidents happen, after all, and such prolific professional writers routinely employ assistants—were their responses when confronted with their offenses. In both cases, though Ambrose much more aggressively than Goodwin, they claimed that in the very nature of composing a historical narrative, assembling notes and quotations, such errors are more or less unavoidable. Hoffer rightly will have none of this.

So much for the plagiarists. The fabricator is Michael Bellesiles, whose startling book Arming America looked poised to overturn completely the prevailing view of gun ownership in the early years of the nation’s past. A winner of the prestigious Bancroft Prize for his book, Bellesiles ultimately stood accused not of borrowing other’s prose—an offense against principles of ownership, and elementary fairness—but of the even more damning sin of willfully twisting data to fit his argument, indeed of actually inventing some of his data from non-existent sources. Hoffer reviews all the charges along with Bellesiles’s explanations, and without managing definitively to dot every ‘i” and cross every “t”, holds Bellesiles guilty of fundamental dishonesty, a judgment confirmed by the unprecedented step of the withdrawal of the Bancroft Prize.

As the falsifier, Hoffer presents Joseph Ellis, the celebrated chronicler of the Founders in such books as Founding Brothers. Nothing in Ellis’s historical writing has come under attack but rather Ellis’s teaching in which he spun imaginary tales of, among other things, his Vietnam War experiences—of which he had exactly none. In Ellis’s case, Hoffer argues that his dishonesty, by encouraging him to cultivate the power of his imagination, seems to have strengthened his historical scholarship. Comparing his earlier work, before he began fabricating in class, and during the occasional book-promoting interview, and his work afterwards, Hoffer sees a distinct gain in Ellis’s “power as a writer,” allowing him to develop “the lightening-like brilliance of the insights into character ... that do not appear in the earlier books” (p. 223).

What is the reader to make of this gathering of plagiarists, falsifiers, and fabricators? Each offense seems quite distinct; what is their relation to one another? Which is most serious as a threat to the integrity of the profession? Alas, Hoffer has nothing whatever to say about this. The cases are presented as if they are extended bullet points in a list called Historical Dishonesty. Not that Hoffer doesn’t have an overarching thesis—he does; but his thesis, that all these problems derive from a tradition of American consensus history, is neither persuasive nor altogether coherent.

Hoffer’s account of what is meant by “consensus history,” a term coined in 1959 by John Higham in which he criticized the frequent “homogenization” of American history, is scattered throughout the first hundred and thirty pages of Part One of his book. It is generally nationalistic and celebratory. It is a history of the white Protestant America, systematically marginalizing the place of African Americans, women, Indians, religious and ethnic minorities, the poor, and all others who were not a part of the nation’s socio-economic elite. More to the point, such history was, according to Hoffer, systematically biased and routinely “falsified and fabricated by omission and commission, and substituted opinion for scholarship” (p. 38). And who were these consensus historians? George Bancroft and Francis Parkman make it into the title of the book, and a handful of other earlier historians are cited, but whether all the historical work before the rise of the relatively recent “new history”—from works such as Henry Adams’s magnificent History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (1889-91) to Arthur Schlessinger Jr.’s The Age of Jackson (1945)—is likewise guilty of such intellectual sins Hoffer does not make clear. Indeed in the handful of pages devoted to Bancroft and Parkman Hoffer cites not a single instance of their texts so that the reader is unable to judge the extent to which these earlier historians were doing what Ambrose and Goodman have done. Indeed, Hoffer acknowledges that unlike these contemporary plagiarists, when Bancroft or Parker use passages from secondary works without quotation marks they do rigorously provide the precise page from which they borrowed it in a footnote.

And what, after all, is the relation between the systematic bias of ideological blinders—race, gender, ethnicity, class—to the kind of plagiarism, falsification and fabrication Hoffer goes on to discuss? That they often overlap must be so: systematic bias would seem logically to necessitate some misuse, misapplication, or selective use of the data. But aren’t these two very different issues: one, the all but inevitable ideological meta-narrative behind the storytelling of any coherent narrative history; the other, the violation of basic standards of intellectual honesty, including the prohibition against verbal theft?

Whether in fact the whole schematic account Hoffer presents of American historiography—the long reign of “consensus history” in all its guises yielding to the post-sixties “new history”— is a fair one is an open question: it is more assumed than argued for in his book. A reader not already persuaded of this now familiar narrative would have very little to go on from Hoffer’s presentation. The scattershot effect of the book’s cumbersome title all too accurately reflects the unfocused and overreaching quality of his argument. In addition to his contrast between “consensus history” and the “new history,” Hoffer weaves in and out of the first part of his book concerns about the development of the historical profession from a sociological and economic point of view, the question of professional standards and official review of historical work, the public perception of the work of historians, and the need for both scientific history and a national sense of the past in which the nation can take understandable pride. When in his brief conclusion Hoffer claims that observers of these recent cases of historians’ dishonesty “did not think in historical terms, or understand the long historical causes of the crisis, [that] they did not see the long dark side of American history writing,” it sounds both sensational and unjustified by anything that came before.

As a balanced, well-document account of the problems some prominent historians have had with standards of honesty, Past Imperfect is of genuine value. What, if anything, this recent spate of cases says about American history as an activity, or a profession, remains to be seen.

Mitchell Meltzer earned his doctorate in English; he is the author of Secular Revelations: The United States Constitution and Classic American Literature (Harvard University Press, 2005) and is currently teaching in the General Studies Program at New York University.