J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, June 25, 2006

Hoffer's Past Imperfect split in two

Prof. Peter Charles Hoffer wrote Past Imperfect as a response to the historiographical scandals of 2002, two of which touched on the Revolutionary period. Hoffer also wrote in response to a division he sees between academic historians and the reading public. But are those two things related?

The first part of Hoffer's book traces broad trends in writing American history over the past century and more. I doubt anyone would argue that, compared to sixty years ago, academic historians now pay more attention to women and less, relatively, to men. More attention to our society's racial and ethnic minorities and less to dominant northern European groups. More attention to the poor and less to the rich. More attention to social movements and less to military movements. More attention to economic trends and less to individual politicians. More attention to history's "losers" and neglected and less to already celebrated heroes. And under today's egalitarian values it would be hard to complain that those changes are a bad thing, though some people try. Most who criticize the trends say simply that they've gone too far.

Be that as it may, the second part of Past Imperfect looks at the four scandals that caught more attention from the public than the average university-press history book—indeed, more than any successful university-press history book. Those controversies are:

  • Emory University professor Michael Bellesiles's Arming America was found to be riddled with misrepresentations of sources and facts, particularly his statistics on probate inventories in the 1700s. His explanations of those errors were untenable.
  • Retired University of New Orleans professor Stephen Ambrose, author of Band of Brothers and many other books, was accused of borrowing too much language from his stated sources. The complaints involved several books written over many years.
  • Doris Kearns Goodwin acknowledged having replicated the language of Lynne McTaggart's biography of Kathleen Kennedy and a couple of other sources for her 1987 book, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys. Goodwin and McTaggart had reached a financial settlement years before.
  • Mount Holyoke College professor Joseph Ellis admitted making false statements about his own role in two of the three major historical events of the 1960s, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. He had recently won a Pulitzer Prize for Founding Brothers, about the political personalities of the early republic. Unlike the other three cases, Ellis's false claims never appeared in his books.
I don't rank the Goodwin kerfuffle with the other three. Goodwin had been a professor of government in the 1970s, but wrote her Kennedy saga after leaving academia. The New York Times called that book "popular history." Since when have commercial books about the Kennedy family been held to the standards of scholarly history? Of course, plagiarizing language is wrong, even if you acknowledge the source in notes; I question whether Goodwin's book was an example of academic history.

For a fourth scandal, I might have substituted the participation of Alf Mapp, Forrest MacDonald, Harvey Mansfield, and other professors in the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society's "Scholars' Commission," selected to fog the evidence that Jefferson had children by a woman he kept enslaved. But relatively few people noticed that report or linked it to the individual scholars who signed it.

Bellesiles's falsehoods had been well documented when Hoffer wrote, first by Clayton E. Cramer (then an independent scholar) and later by law professors and historians, so Hoffer's summary added little for me. (You can sample my evolving remarks on the Bellesiles case here, here, here, and here. Otherwise, here's the most useful thing I can tell you: It's pronounced, "bel-LEEL.")

Past Imperfect shows that Ambrose had borrowed stirring language from his sources without quote marks for many years. Goodwin had done the same, but on a smaller scale. Hoffer also notes that the standards for what constituted plagiarism were much more lenient in the 1800s. I wish he'd dug into whether our culture's standards for plagiarism (at least for books) became more strict in just the past couple of decades. In our most recent bloodletting on this issue, the national press jumped all over teen novelist Kaavya Viswanathan for writing genre fiction that read very much like other genre fiction—which is what genre fiction is supposed to do. Viswanathan clearly did replicate short passages from a couple of other writers, but several trumpeted examples were simply her versions of standard set-pieces, like the makeover scene.

The most interesting part of Past Imperfect's second half, I think, is Hoffer's comparison between Joseph Ellis's approach to writing history and his fabulism about his own career. As a storyteller, Ellis is terrific. Founding Brothers is a delightful series of linked vignettes. Passionate Sage is a great character study. The strength of his books is getting into the main figures' heads. The same skill that lets Ellis imagine the thinking and interaction of the U.S. of A.'s first politicians, Hoffer suggests, led him to be too imaginative when he spoke to students and interviews about his own career. (Ellis did serve as an officer in the Vietnam-era army, but he taught at West Point instead of fighting in Vietnam. He was involved in some political activities during the late 1960s, but did no civil-rights organizing in the South.) Hoffer's analysis reminds us that a historian's greatest strength can also be a weakness.

I think the big hole in Past Imperfect is the gap between the two halves. They don't fit together. Ambrose made his name writing mostly about white men at war. Also white men in the Oval Office, white men crossing North America, and Crazy Horse. Given the trends described in my second paragraph above, Ambrose wrote an old-fashioned style of history. Goodwin, too, has concentrated on biography of "great men" and their families: Kennedys, Roosevelts, Johnson, and now Lincoln. Ellis focuses on the elite political class; some historians say he gives too little attention to the social and other forces that determined what those top men could and wanted to do. Ellis's preface for Founding Brothers, in return, argues for the importance of individual decisions in history. So these three authors are not representative of academic historians as Hoffer described the class.

What about Bellesiles? His book promised to look at the broad American population, not just the wealthy (who owned guns disproportionately, he claimed). It offered a simulacrum of social history through probate inventories. But Bellesiles's earlier work was on Ethan and Ira Allen and the Green Mountain Boys: white, Anglo-Saxon men long lionized for their leadership in military and political affairs. Ethan Allen is even a brand name. Bellesiles has never dipped into the biographical genre as deeply as Ambrose, Goodwin, and Ellis, but his early work had clear ties to the traditional approach Hoffer describes.

Past Imperfect links its two halves this way: academic historians lost the affection and trust of the general public in the late 1900s. Therefore, the public was primed to jump on the scandals of 2002, and see them as tainting the whole profession. Yet two of those scandals (Ambrose, Goodwin) had arisen because of authors' wishes to please popular audiences with stirring language, a third (Ellis) to please them with a personal link to important movements. Bellesiles published through a commercial press that did no peer review but an excellent job of getting pre-publication news coverage and prominent reviews. One half of Past Imperfect is about historians not pleasing the public's tastes. The other half is about historians trying too hard to please. But, as I wrote above, are those two things related?

6 comments:

Clayton said...

You are correct that in one sense, the two halves don't fit: historians who didn't care what the public wanted, and historians who cared too much. But what these have in common is really Hoffer's point: integrity matters, and it doesn't matter whether it is being done to please the academic elite or the publishing elite. Plagiarism and fraud aren't right.

J. L. Bell said...

Your comment makes an assumption that "historians who didn't care what the public wanted" have exhibited a lack of integrity on the same level as the four authors Hoffer focuses on. But his book doesn't offer evidence for that conclusion. All four high-profile cases involved authors seeking big sales through commercial presses or admiration from non-professional audiences.

Bellesiles's work addressed a controversial topic, but it's controversial because there are large numbers on both sides of most "gun issues," not because one side is unpopular.

It may sound like John Adams to say so, but integrity often requires not caring about what the public wants if the evidence points in another direction. The first half of Hoffer's book suggests that doing so can lead to popular suspicion—but he doesn't claim those historians have compromised their integrity. That's why I think he identified two separate and barely related phenomena.

Clayton said...

"All four high-profile cases involved authors seeking big sales through commercial presses or admiration from non-professional audiences."

However, Bellesiles's book was almost certainly motivated more by the political consequences he hoped that it would have--not the commercial possibilities. (It was a complete disaster, for something published by a trade publisher.)

"Bellesiles's work addressed a controversial topic, but it's controversial because there are large numbers on both sides of most "gun issues," not because one side is unpopular."

But one side is unpopular--at least among academics and publishing elites. When I first tried to get a corrective book published on the subject, in 2001, Michael Korda (who ought to know a bit about the publishing business) told me that I was wasting my time trying to get such a book published; the book publishing industry hates guns, and facts and accuracy were really quite irrelevant.

In the meantime, a bit of a conservative publishing industry has grown up, and there is now a market for such books (or so I am hoping).

J. L. Bell said...

Trade publishing is my business, so I feel I have a good perspective on that side of the Bellesiles saga.

Arming America was not a "complete disaster" when it first came out. Its pre-publication publicity, laydown (quantity going into stores), critical reception (e.g., front page of the New York Times Book Review), and initial interest were extraordinarily good for a scholarly book by an author unknown to the public.

Arming America sold only about 9,000 copies in hardcover before scholars started to expose its flaws, but for that type of book that would have been a more than respectable performance. Knopf was proud of the book and how it had published it, and was expecting years of softcover sales—the usual pattern for such titles.

Then Knopf's people realized they'd been had. Only then, with unsellable inventory and no chance of a long paperback sale, did the book become a financial burden. And for such a big media company, the real hit was the embarrassment.

If Michael Korda told you there was no conservative publisher in 2001, he gave you very bad advice. Regnery, The Free Press, and ReganBooks had all been publishing bestsellers from and for the right wing of American politics for years by that point. Who published all the anti-Clinton books of the 1990s, after all?

Of course, making a scholarly study into a strong seller is much harder than publishing a man with a national radio following, but that's true no matter what the politics are.

Basically, you seem to classify Bellesiles among historians who sought acclaim from the academy rather than the public, who "didn't care what the public wanted." Which might be true. But it undercuts that position to suggest he had "political consequences" in mind. If so, he wanted to reach a wide audience. If he'd set his sights only on academics, and they're already mostly anti-gun as you say, then his writing would have produced no political change.

I still think Bellesiles was looking to make a big splash beyond his academic colleagues, that he did care about what the public would think. And in that respect he's quite different from historians who write books that are bound to find little favor with people outside the field because of their viewpoints, topics, methodologies, writing styles, etc. For one thing, the latter group don't make up most of their evidence.

Peter Charles Hoffer said...

Sorry to come to this thread almost five years after it was spun, but perhaps I can add some perspective. first, I did not decide to write Past Imperfect in response to the scandals, I wrote it in response to the decision of the AHA's professional division (of which I was then a member) to cease hearing complaints about historians' misconduct. I did say that the public was dismayed, but I did not say this dismay was my motivation. Second, Public Affairs (the publisher) wanted an expose, in effect, an expanded version of the second half of the book. I wanted to put those cases into a larger context. If I failed to fully related the first to the second half of the book, it was not because there was no relation. Ambrose was a professor of history at UNO. Ellis was a professor of history at Mount Holyoke. Bellesiles was a professor of history at Emory. Goodwin was trained as an academic. It seemed to me that they had all lived through, firsthand, what I detailed in the first part of the book, and their approach to their publications was in part a response to the attack on academic history. All best, Peter

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for your comments, Peter Hoffer. It helps to see how the book evolved.