Wednesday’s Book Review: “Past Imperfect”


Past ImperfectPast Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud—American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin. By Peter Charles Hoffer. New York: Public Affairs, 2004.

In many ways this is a fascinating work. Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud—American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin emphasizes a longtime attachment to consensus history, its challenge by the “new social historians” that first asserted themselves in the 1960s, and the recent culture wars and the place of history in them. In the end, distinguished historian Peter Charles Hoffer believes that the controversies over historians Stephen Ambrose (plagiarism), Michael Bellesiles (falsification of documentary evidence), Joseph Ellis (falsification of a personal past), and Doris Kearns Goodwin (plagiarism) that have taken place in the last few years rests on a failure of the historical profession’s commitment to honesty and integrity. More about that below; Hoffer sets up a dialectic to show this trajectory.

Hoffer asserts, and there is every reason to accept this statement, that American history has long been dominated by an interpretation of the nation as exceptionalistic and triumphant. The Romantic historians of the nineteenth century, epitomized by Francis Parkman and George Bancroft, celebrated the creation of the United States of America and its place in the world; it was an homogenized, consensus approach. Such historians as Charles Beard and Carl Becker in the first part of the twentieth century emphasized more conflict, in which “the people” battled against “the interests” but the result was over time a more equitable, just society. During the earliest years of struggle with the Soviet Union historians increasingly emphasized a consensus interpretation of the American past. This interpretation celebrated the long tradition of shared American ideals and values while de-emphasizing conflict.

This dominant strain of American history came under concerted attack through the rise of the new social history of the 1960s. As Hoffer commented: “Outraged by the Viet Nam War and inspired by the civil rights movement, this new generation of professional historians set themselves the task of dismantling consensus history. Some of them were political radicals, and they gave renewed life to the progressive critique of consensus. Others were more concerned with black history and women’s history and were determined to move the story of threes groups to center stage” (p. 63). By the 1980s the consensus, exceptionalistic perspective on the American past had crumbled throughout academia, but it had not done so among the broader public where there is a largely comforting emphasis on history as exemplifying one people, one nation.

This shift of academic history from an emphasis on unity to a multicultural, in some cases divisive, perspective on the past deeply troubled many observers. They viewed history as a means of instilling in the nation’s citizenry a sense of awe and reverence for the nation-state and its system of governance. They questioned the necessity of considering other ways of seeing the past, the reexamination of traditional interpretations, and the more multicultural, relativistic, and conflict-oriented approach to delving into history. It was during this era that “revisionist history” first entered the lexicon as a term of derision, as if understanding of the past could never be altered in any way. Numerous castings of aspersions on the academic approach to history, the fruits of professors’ historical research, and the professional historians themselves emerged from the 1980s on and accelerated as a the century came to a close.

As Hoffer notes, this debate represented a battle for control of the national memory. Would it be one that is unified—one people, one nation—or one that was fragmented and personal? Having lost this battle in higher education, or perhaps not even fully joining it, the forces of consensus and continuity struggled to control the far more significant and broader reach of history outside the colleges and universities. The effort became something of a crusade, but not one orchestrated from the top down via some master plan.

Several professional historians, as well as many talented journalists and writers, entered the popular market of those seeking consensus historical narratives. Steven Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin were two of the most celebrated, and both succumbed to the market’s pressure to produce, became sloppy in their sourcing, and also insisted in a different standard of integrity than what was accepted in academia. What, they ask, constitutes “plagiarism?” Should their popular works meet the standards of an academic work? There are only so many ways to state a specific fact, some argued. Ambrose died in 2002 just as charges were leveled against him. Goodwin settled court cases against her, curtailed her public activities for a time, and has come back to continue her career. Hoffer tells their stories well.

As Hoffer shows, Michael Bellesiles’s work on the emergence of the gun culture in America is a different situation from Ambrose and Goodwin. Bellesiles viewed his position that gun ownership in early America was much less than earlier thought as a counterbalance to the NRA and the insistence on an absolute right to own and bear arms. Opponents of his position charged him with falsifying his historical data, and indeed it appears that they were correct in those charges. Bellesiles’s principal work on this subject, Arming America (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), was withdrawn from publication, his Bancroft Prize for it was rescinded, and he resigned from Emory University in disgrace. But several years after the fact, he has come back and continues to work in the field.

Finally, Joseph Ellis’s books on early America have enjoyed tremendous popularity, but he manufactured a personal past in the classroom that eventually caught up with him and he had to “mea culpa” and accept some time off without pay from Mount Holyoke College. He, too, came back from this embarrassment and continues to teach and write bestsellers.

Hoffer mourns the historical profession’s actions in these cases. He indicts the American Historical Association for failing to act appropriately, and suggests that historians might have effectively used these incidents as “a virtual national classroom in which they could have uses the cases to teach sound historical methods” (p. 237). This is an interesting and important book on recent mischief in the historical discipline. It is an object lesson in professional ethics and practices in modern America.

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One Response to Wednesday’s Book Review: “Past Imperfect”

  1. Eric T says:

    Thank you for the review, I’ll be sure to check it out.

    Like

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