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Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions and Fraud in the Writing of American History
Synopses & Reviews
Woodrow Wilson, a practicing academic historian before he took to politics, defined the importance of history: "A nation which does not know what it was yesterday, does not know what it is today." He, like many men of his generation, wanted to impose a version of America's founding identity: it was a land of the free and a home of the brave. But not the braves. Or the slaves. Or the disenfranchised women. So the history of Wilson's generation omitted a significant proportion of the population in favor of a perspective that was predominantly white, male and Protestant.
That flaw would become a fissure and eventually a schism. A new history arose which, written in part by radicals and liberals, had little use for the noble and the heroic, and that rankled many who wanted a celebratory rather than a critical history. To this combustible mixture of elements was added the flame of public debate. History in the 1990s was a minefield of competing passions, political views and prejudices. It was dangerous ground, and, at the end of the decade, four of the nation's most respected and popular historians were almost destroyed by it: Michael Bellesiles, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen Ambrose and Joseph Ellis.
This is their story, set against the wider narrative of the writing of America's history. It may be, as Flaubert put it, that "Our ignorance of history makes us libel our own times." To which he could have added: falsify, plagiarize and politicize, because that's the other story of America's history.
"An adviser to the American Historical Association on plagiarism, Hoffer focuses on the four most notorious recent cases of professional historical misconduct in this useful and reasonably argued study: Michael Bellesiles's manufacturing of data in Arming America; Joseph Ellis's fabrication of a fraudulent Vietnam-era past for himself; and the documented plagiarisms of Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose. In the case of Goodwin, historian Hoffer, of the University of Georgia, cites not only the much-written-about instances of copying in The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys but also the L.A. Times's investigative work showing that Goodwin plagiarized from books by Joseph Lash, Grace Tully (Franklin Roosevelt's secretary) and Hugh Gregory Gallagher when cobbling together her Pulitzer Prize — winning No Ordinary Time. With regard to Ambrose, Hoffer goes back to the historian's earliest works to document an apparently lifelong pattern of word theft. In the end, Hoffer sees the sins of Bellesiles (falsifying research data) and Ellis (lying to students and the press about his personal history) as in a different and smaller league. Hoffer examines these cases in the broader context of the professionalization of history, the battle between academic and popular history, and professional standards. Those concerned with the integrity and future of the field will find this analysis illuminating. Agent, Scott Waxman. (Oct.)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Book News Annotation:
Hoffer (history, U. of Georgia) writes a jeremiad for historians in this analysis of the current state of the profession. He focuses on recent scandals--the charges of fraud, falsification and plagiarism against the high profile historians Michael Bellesiles, Joseph Ellis, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose--as emblematic of unhealthy trends in the field. Hoffer blames a division between popular and scholarly publications, overspecialization, politicization and the climate of celebrity for weakening the profession.
Annotation ©2004 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
About the Author
Peter Charles Hoffer is professor of history at the University of Georgia. He is a member of the American Historical Association's professional division, which audits the standards of academic historians' work. The author of many books of academic history, he was also invited to advise the AHA on plagiarism. He lives in Georgia.
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