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Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud American History from Bancroft and… (2007)

af Peter Charles Hoffer

MedlemmerAnmeldelserPopularitetGennemsnitlig vurderingOmtaler
1191174,693 (3.5)4
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.… (mere)

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I moved this book higher on my reading list because of the flap over Ginnie Jones' s extensive lifting of material from others and her sloppy attempts at paraphrase on Goodreads. It's an excellent resource on the genesis and practice of plagarism from the perspective of the professional historian.

I have to admit I like popular history, i.e., Tuchman, Nevins, Catton, Goodwin, anything with a narrative not too full of data and graphs although they certainly have a place.(Hoffer would call this consensus history.)

Hoffer, who was on the American Historical Association's Professional Division, examines the difference between "popular history" (dare I suspect some envy on the part of "non-popular" historians whose books don't sell as well?) and what he worries is the new sloppiness of history writing. Not to mention frauds (Ellis' faking having served in Vietnam -- something I would argue has nothing to do with his books -- and Bellesiles' faking of data in his book [.book:Arming America The Origins of a National Gun Culture|2216931]

Hoffer's antipathy reveals itself almost immediately as he describes
[b:Founding Brothers The Revolutionary Generation|7493|Founding Brothers The Revolutionary Generation|Joseph J. Ellis|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1165625855s/7493.jpg|1290896] as "slickly written and imaginatively framed." He argues that Goodwin, Ellis, Ambrose, and Bellesile brought disrespect on the profession by their actions and destroyed confidence in them by the public. Hoffer examines the four cases in some detail.

The first half or so of the book is a very interesting review of the changes in historiography, from adulatory, i.e. consensus history that relied in part on plagiaristic practices of repeating what had been said before; "consensus history was winners' history written and read by the winners." For this reason consensus history's fabrications, falsehoods, and plagiarism -- plagiarism was quite common among 19th century historians. Parkman, in particular, never cited his sources and borrowed liberally. In light of our recent Ginnie debacle, I find that interesting.) actually immunized it from criticism in elite and learned circles." Authors practicing consensus history were such giants as Francis Parkman, George Bancroft and, surprisingly, Theodore Roosevelt. More recently, Nevins, Commager (the two, one right, the other left, wrote a popular history textbook in the fifties) and Daniel Boorstin.

Some of this information is unsettling as well -- for me at least, and I suppose I should have been aware of such things, ignorant as I am. Boorstin's Americans trilogy has also been one of my favorites, yet Hoffer reveals it to be consensus history of the most blatant kind, ignoring the role of slaves, Indians and woman. He attributes some of this perhaps to Boorstin's over-reaction to his fellow-traveling in the 30's. He continued to assuage his guilt by ratting on fellow academics before HUAC (despicable) and even went so far as to suggest that no Communist should be allowed to teach college. Hoffer suggests his trilogy was another way to compensate by promoting a national and consensus view of American history.

The "new history", was one that celebrated diversity of viewpoints, statistical analysis, and disputation among its adherents. So the professionalization and changes in the nature of historical analysis left the way open for self-criticism and the embarrassment of the four disgraced historians who's transgressions he reviews in some depth. Historians, after the battle over the Enola Gay Smithsonian exhibition, had lost a lot of credibility. "Were they losing their most important readership and forfeiting their authority by writing more and more about less and less." David Hoolinger didn't think so, "Don't forget that the larger community of readers we call 'the public' is less able than our trained, learned colleagues to evaluation [sic:] the truth of what we write." Correct perhaps; injudicious certainly.

The irony of Hoffer's condemnation is that the four aforementioned had all been academic historians, and his broad brush tends to taint non-academic historians who have not been accused of any misdeeds: David McCullough, James McPherson, Rick Atkinson, Barbara Tuchman, and many many others, several who came out of the ranks of journalism remain unsullied so perhaps the fault lies more in the world of academia with their reliance on graduate assistants than with the popularization of history that he decries. And yet -- and I suspect this comment might engender quite a bit of comment -- the four cases Hoffer cites, with perhaps the exception of Bellesile, are not grievous errors of falsification. Plagiarism sucks, to put it bluntly, but I guess one could argue it's also a form of flattery. Ambrose really liked Childers' writing (see my reviews of Ambrose and Childers' books). He just took it as his own. Goodwin settled out of court and explained her plagiarism was inadvertent and sloppy attribution but still admitted it was wrong, and Ellis' sin was to lie about his lack of service in Vietnam. But none of these even hinted that their historical work was factually or interpretations were flawed. So, I would argue, the authors may be flawed personally but not professionally.

The chapters on Ambrose and Goodwin I found especially dispiriting. I have nothing against narrative and consensus history- I enjoy it, in fact, but their wholesale lifting of passages from secondary sources -- well documented in Ambrose's case all the way back to his first books -- was distasteful. Goodwin rationalized her failure in not adding quotation marks to the hundreds of purloined passages by saying they "would have ruined the narrative flow." Her comments should be taken as disingenuous given that Simon and Schuster paid a monetary settlement in secret to the offended author several years before the Ambrose debacle. Citations to the pilfered works there were; but no indication that passages were lifted verbatim making it look like Ambrose and Goodwin had been working from the primary sources rather than the secondary. Had they added the quotation marks it would have been more apparent they were doing a "cut-and-paste" job.

The last few chapters are less successful than the beginning. He tries too hard to make a case the distinction between using "facts" to write history and biography that are commonly known and attributing based on whether they were obtained through secondary or primary sources. The he goes on about attributing to specific historians films and other non-print works that have been used developing background for the works.

This book could be read in conjunction with [b:History Wars The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past|178302|History Wars The Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past|Tom Engelhardt|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1172460968s/178302.jpg|172243]
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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.

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