A review of Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud—American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin, by Peter Charles Hoffer
Is there a crisis in American history? Peter Charles Hoffer, a talented and prolific practitioner who served on the American Historical Association committee that once reviewed malpractice cases, is convinced that there is "something…very wrong with historical scholarship." A series of sensational scandals that climaxed in 2001 and 2002—the falsification of data on early American gun ownership by Michael Bellesiles, widespread plagiarism by popular historians Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, and the classroom fabulations of Joseph J. Ellis—constitute a "suppurating wound" that the profession can't, even worse won't, stanch. It is richly ironic that the AHA council ordered Hoffer's Professional Division to abandon adjudication at precisely the moment these scandals raised such troubling questions about the discipline's standards. Hoffer's own experience thus exacerbates his sense of crisis. Because he identifies so profoundly with the larger community of professional historians, he takes these scandals very personally.
I suppose I should, too. Over the years, I've had extensive and generally friendly dealings with Bellesiles and Ellis, both fellow early Americanists. My blurb for Bellesiles's Arming America (a "myth-busting tour de force") is a particular source of personal embarrassment. The question Hoffer poses in Past Imperfect is whether the transgressions he recounts (and the embarrassment so many of us experienced in the Bellesiles case) reflect a profound crisis in the discipline. I am dubious. Hoffer's distress is predicated on the existence of a professional community, defined by its own standards and practices and by the crucial role it plays—or should play—in the larger culture; the AHA is—or should be—the institutional embodiment of the profession and enforcer of its standards. Most crucially, Hoffer argues, the profession should exercise some kind of discipline over all forms of historical writing, including popular works by amateurs or quasi-professionals. But should "we" be responsible for Ambrose and Goodwin? Are they members of the profession? The recently deceased Ambrose didn't think so. "Screw it," he told one of his last interviewers, "I don't know that I'm all that good at academics. I am a writer." Ambrose remained unrepentant about his plagiarism. Goodwin, trained as a political scientist, was more distressed when hers was exposed, but not by any sense that she had betrayed her calling as an historian. "Together," Hoffer concludes, the "denunciations" of Ambrose and Goodwin "shook the history profession to its core." This is more than a bit excessive. The earth didn't move for me or, as far as I know, for my fellow professionals. Why should we be concerned about the transgressions of best-selling popular historians?
The first part of Hoffer's book provides the backstory to his history of our season of scandals. American history-writing emerged with the nation itself in a time of crisis and division, when it offered an inspiring narrative and instilled a mythic sense of national unity. The emergence of professional history and its characteristic rhetorical forms (boring monographs) in the late 19th century did not subvert historians' commitment to "the theme of one people, one nation, one history," despite challenges from relativists and progressives who focused on conflict and promoted inclusiveness. Instead, "consensus" and "neo-consensus" historians offered sophisticated (and increasingly ironic) accounts of a homogenized national experience. Only with the emergence of the "new" history of the 1960s (there were many "new" histories, but pride of place belongs to the "new social history") was the conservative consensus challenged and then displaced. The new historians assaulted the bastions of consensus orthodoxy, demolishing its homogenizing, celebratory premises.
This may have been the kind of history that a self-consciously multicultural America needed, but it came at a price. General audiences looked for "proofs that American history could inspire and delight," while hyper-specialized new historians looked the other way, writing "for one another." Though Hoffer is a member of this insurgent generation, he is ambivalent about what it has wrought. He celebrates the new history's inclusiveness and critical spirit, but laments that "it undermined the intellectual authority that consensus historians had claimed and…routinely exercised." Ill-fated interventions in public controversies over historical interpretation in the 1990s—over National History Standards, or the dropping of the atomic bomb, or the Clinton impeachment—squandered whatever little authority the profession still possessed. By the time our scandal season hit, historians were lying low, ineffectually fumbling "the opportunity to construct a virtual national classroom in which they could have used the cases to teach sound historical methods," while "the journalists and pundits got all the lessons wrong."
Hoffer is much too hard on himself and his fellow new historians. It's a healthy thing for historians to recognize the limits of their influence. Public controversies don't arise over historical methods (though historians will quarrel endlessly about the value of different approaches), but rather over the larger meanings we impute to the evidence. For better or worse, these meanings are now up for grabs. Historians can bring new evidence to the table and they can judge the quality of evidence others adduce, but they have no monopoly on larger truths. They can reconstruct the range of meanings that de- fine the times and places they study, and thus offer illuminating genealogies of the ideas now in circulation, but that doesn't entitle them—as historians, rather than as citizens—to make normative judgments. The profession may have suffered some damage from culture wars and history scandals, as Hoffer argues so eloquently, but I'm inclined to think that, on balance, these controversies have also generated more interest in history and—in the Bellesiles case—more good historical research.
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Hoffer's engaging history of the history profession justifies treating recent scandals as related and symptomatic developments. After all, popular history is the bastard offspring of professional history and popular historians themselves are often professionally trained. But the gap between "bad celebratory chronicle" and "sound, critical scholarship" has always yawned wide. Yet, as Hoffer argues, it was only when consensus historians, ensconced in their distant ivory towers, embraced and endorsed that "chronicle" that they could exercise any cultural authority at all. How could their successors possibly monitor the ethical lapses and interpretive leaps of Stephen Ambrose and his ilk? Hoffer's chapter on the plagiarists is well done: his indictment of Ambrose and Goodwin is comprehensive and convincing. But it's hard to sustain the sympathetic conceit that these are straying members of his own flock: plagiarizing popularizers (particularly Ambrose, who ripped off the work of respectable historians) are more a threat to the profession than a symptom of our malaise. Because Hoffer's identification with Bellesiles and Ellis is more authentic, and less opportunistic, his treatment of their scandals is much more compelling.
Hoffer's chapter on the Ellis case is a tour de force. Previous commentators have focused on the ways in which the charismatic teacher betrayed the trust of his students at Mount Holyoke by pretending that he served in Vietnam, participated in the civil rights movement, and even starred on his high school football team. But Hoffer persuasively argues that Ellis's fabulations were also reflected in his popular histories of the founders. "The lies he told about himself and the way he told them changed the way he wrote history," transforming "able craftsmanship into high art." Ellis could have it both ways. Admired (and envied) by his fellow professionals, he also reveled in the adulation of students and readers. The stakes were raised when Ellis himself became a celebrity and began spinning classroom tales to interviewers and audiences across the country. Perhaps the increasing "risk of exposure and censure" was its own titillating reward? In Hoffer's sympathetic telling, Ellis's saga is a classic morality tale. Some of us might resist the seductive lure of fame and fortune—though pathetically few are ever tested—but who wouldn't sell his soul to produce "high art"? This is not selling out; it's selling up. And, after all, the price Ellis paid was not great. Though stripped of his chair at Mount Holyoke and put on unpaid leave for a year, book royalties continued to pour in. Now Ellis "is back in harness," Hoffer ruefully concludes, "penance done"—and a new book on Washington flying off the bookstore shelves.
Ellis may be a reputable historian, but it's hard to see him as one of Hoffer's new historians. Historians' controversies over the founding period are not interesting to him, and it is fair to say that his contributions to "sound critical scholarship"—as opposed to "high art"—have not been substantial. It might make more sense, then, to lump him with the popularizers (though certainly not with the plagiarizers). That would leave only a single new historian, Michael Bellesiles, in Hoffer's crew of malefactors. The chapter on the Bellesiles case will not be as gripping to general readers as the Ellis chapter because it is so largely devoted to a close critical analysis of flawed and probably fraudulent probate data. But it is the most important chapter in Past Imperfect, the best short review of a perplexing case that does indeed raise critical issues for the profession. Hoffer's chapter succeeds because it is exemplary history writing, achieving the kind of balance and respect for evidence that gives our best work its authority. Yet it is also deeply engaged, sympathetic but unflinching. In writing about Bellesiles, Hoffer is writing about his generation of new historians and the more insidious temptations it faces. "Bellesiles is a good man and often a fine historian"—judgments I strongly endorse—but he was carried away by his thesis, seduced by "noble goals" that betrayed his calling as an historian.
Historians are trained to treat evidence meticulously and to provide readers with citations that take them directly to their sources. Because our research is supposedly transparent, or at least replicable, we assume that fellow researchers are always acting in good faith: interpretations may have a short shelf-life (we are all "revisionists," responding to changing historiographical agendas), but the "facts" we assemble should be trustworthy and thus available for reinterpretation. Bellesiles claimed to have looked at thousands of probate records that revealed that an unexpectedly small number of Americans (14.7% for the period 1765-1790) were gun-owners. If this were true, it would reinforce the contemporary argument that the drafters of the Second Amendment intended to create a "well-armed militia"—a collective responsibility—and not secure the individual right of gun ownership. Not surprisingly, liberal historians were delighted to find that the "facts" supported their policy preference for gun control; nor was it surprising that opponents of gun control joined by skeptical historians would take another look at the evidence.
What they found—or, more accurately, didn't find—was shocking. Bellesiles's numbers bore little relation to the documents—where they were identified accurately enough to be consulted. Because his research notes were allegedly destroyed in an office flood, it was impossible for investigators to determine whether this was conscious fraud or a case of sloppiness on a massive scale. In the end, it didn't matter. A distinguished committee commissioned by Emory University, Bellesiles's home institution, concluded that he had violated that institution's research standards as well as the AHA's "standard of professional historical scholarship." Bellesiles resigned at the end of 2002. Unlike the other subjects of Past Imperfect, it is by no means clear that Bellesiles will bounce back to fame or fortune, or even to a regular teaching job. By seeking to enlist friends, colleagues, and professional associations against the critical assaults and alleged personal threats of his detractors, Bellesiles betrayed the profession's trust. Indeed, the present-day "profession" only emerges clearly in these pages in its reluctant but inexorable alienation from one of its own.
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There are many ways to interpret this sad tale. Hoffer emphasizes the ways in which the popular press took the lead in all the cases he discusses, but here it is clear that skeptical academics—graduate students, law professors, and fellow historians—kept the controversy alive, not (as Bellesiles would have had us think) by reactionary partisan sniping, but rather by ongoing research in the sources. I certainly feel chastened and humbled—my own "authority" as a blurber has suffered a setback—but I'm not persuaded that the profession as a whole is suffering from a "suppurating wound." Hoffer's reaction to the fate of the AHA's Professional Division is understandable. But the AHA's decision merely confirmed its own irrelevance. After all, all of these high profile cases were broken in the popular press, and none came before the Professional Division (if they had, Hoffer could not have written about them, and that would have been a shame). Pursuing miscreants without effective sanctions, the AHA would only expose itself to ridicule, if not expensive and embarrassing litigation. It does not follow, however, that the "profession"—including critics who dogged Bellesiles persistently after he published preliminary results of his research in the Journal of American History in 1996—failed to rise to the occasion. Nor am I persuaded that the "marketplace of ideas" failed in this case, however irrelevant it may have proved in the others. It took too long, perhaps, but better history ultimately drove out worse.
Historians are disproportionately "liberal," as this tag (or charge) is promiscuously applied in these extraordinarily polarized days. But we are a diverse, contrary, "critical, and self-critical" bunch. By and large, we do not suffer from delusions of policy-making grandeur. If some of us had set off to find a "usable past," we have returned with sober second thoughts, humbled not only by the past's complexities but even more by the complexities of our own historical moment. Though Peter Hoffer's jeremiad overshoots its mark, it is an excellent and entertaining introduction to contemporary American historiography.