The Magazine

Cheating History

Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin-the historians who let us down.

Nov 29, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 11 • By DAVID SKINNER
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Past Imperfect

Facts, Fictions, Fraud--American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin

by Peter Charles Hoffer

PublicAffairs, 287 pp., $26

PETER CHARLES HOFFER begins his book about the crisis in the history profession with the four most famous words in all of fiction: "Once upon a time." But instead of princes and witches, the reader gets an ironic story about the magical time when "history meant everything to Americans, and historians were revered and trusted. For everyone knew that history's lessons were immutable and inescapable."

Hoffer's point is this: Even before the postmodernists came along and cast all of history into the darkness of relativism, the facts still weren't all they were cracked up to be. The old historians, back in the nineteenth century and even in the early twentieth century, Hoffer shows, didn't treat primary sources with great care. Better raconteurs than curators, such major American scholars of the nineteenth century as Francis Parkman and George Bancroft made big, satisfying stories from history's incomplete and not-always-ennobling record.

They made America look good, Hoffer argues in Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud--American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin, but at the expense of (you guessed it) women and minorities. These poor folks were excluded from the heroic story of our country. Up until the 1950s, historians emphasized progress and national unity, while bypassing events and institutions that would, if looked at fairly, call into question the American people's equal take of the freedoms that set our great nation apart.

Now, Hoffer's account may sound like some rote, first-day-of-class lecture--but it is in fact the setup he's chosen for an examination of the plagiarism and falsification scandals that have stirred up his profession. An outsider might think that the recent scandals involving Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Joseph Ellis, and Michael Bellesiles concern merely those writers' personal wrongdoing. Whatever the shortcomings of the historical profession--not paying enough attention to women and minorities in the old days, say, or paying them too much attention these days--surely that is a separate matter from whether Doris Kearns Goodwin's The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys lifted copy from Lynne McTaggart's earlier Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times.

Not so, according to Hoffer, who believes the recent crop of scandals is, like everything else in American history these days, indeed, about women and minorities. Hoffer believes that for us to understand the scandals properly, we must travel the long road connecting early pro-American "consensus" historians to the radical anti-American historians of the 1960s. In this, he increases the divide between academic historians and readers of popular history, even as he intends to close it. With Hoffer spending 139 out of 240 pages on the history of writing history, his book actually proves that what interests historians is not what interests non-historians about the past.

The most relevant part of this extended prelude concerns the new historians who began climbing the ranks in the mid-1960s--Hoffer included. They were defined by two ambitions: to call into question American history as it was handed down to them, and to live out their New Left convictions as professional academics. These historians, says Hoffer, "discerned an essential relationship between the writing of history and current events." Sometimes current events took precedence over history writing, as when the radical historian Jesse Lemisch feuded with fellow radical Eugene Genovese over whether to use the 1969 convention of the American Historical Association to protest American involvement in Vietnam. Sticking to his guns all these years later, Lemisch told an audience at Columbia University in April 2002 that "activist experience gives the historian experiential understanding of the power of the state...and the depth of commitment of those with power to maintaining the standing order." And not only that: "A good dose of tear gas makes us think more clearly as historians."