Political and Historical BooksDick Stensland -- Sunday, December 01, 2002 -- 07:43:03 AM
Political and Historical Books.This thread is tagged: books
(All users will see what tags exist for a thread. Please tag carefully!)
Nonfiction writers who succumb to the temptations of phantom scholarship are a burgeoning breed these days, although most stop short of fabricating interviews with Presidents. But Stephen Ambrose, who, at the time of his death, in 2002, was America’s most famous and popular historian, appears to have done just that. Before publishing a string of No. 1 best-sellers, including “Band of Brothers” and “D-Day,” Ambrose had made his name chronicling the life of Dwight D. Eisenhower. More than half of the thirty-plus books that Ambrose wrote, co-wrote, or edited concerned Eisenhower, and Ambrose spoke often, on C-SPAN or “Charlie Rose” or in print interviews, about how his life had been transformed by getting to know the former President and spending “hundreds and hundreds of hours” interviewing him over a five-year period before Eisenhower died, in 1969.
Except it wasn't hundreds and hundreds of hours. It was less than 5.
Really, once a historian has been caught lying about his work once, why ever even pretend to believe him?
I found his books (the few I read) to be rather trite and shallow anyway. So I don't care if his reputation is besmirched.
The problem is that he conducted thousands of interviews with WWII veterans. But the books produced by those interviews can't be trusted. (I don't know if his archives were carefully kept, and thus, useful to others.) So pair him with SLA Marshall, and two of the most prodigious collectors of American WWII oral histories are known to be untrustworthy. It's an immense waste of historical resources.
I agree. It's not his reputation I care about, it's the history that he may have lied about.
It's strange to hear Ambrose described as a historian who preferred "to sacrifice fact for narrative panache" because I've always thought of him as a rather dull historian and traditional biographer. Did anybody really read Ambrose to discover things about Eisenhower they couldn't find anywhere else? His books put me to sleep. If he was sacrificing fact for narrative panache, I think he needed to sacrifice more facts.
I also thought it was interesting that not a single material fact put forward by Ambrose in his Eisenhower books was challenged in the New Yorker article. Rives apparently discovered that Ambrose didn't interview Eisenhower as much as Ambrose claimed and lied about his access to the former president, but why wouldn't he explain how that changed Ambrose's books?
One final point. Famous scholars are often attacked after they are dead, and often they are attacked by less-famous scholars who claim they were friendly with the recently deceased scholar. Look at the case of Sir Cyril Burt, the famous psychologist who was well known for his work on IQ and twins. Less than a decade after his death, two biographies came out that claimed Burt may have faked his research. One of those books was written by someone who considered himself a friend to Burt. These books almost sank Burt's reputation for good. But the next twenty years brought scholarly challenges to both the facts and the narrative of those two critical biographies and partially revived Burt's reputation.
So I wouldn't be so quick on the trigger to assume that Rives is correct in his facts or interpretation. Ambrose made many of his claims about his access to Eisenhower almost two decades ago, when many of the people who were around Ike in his post-presidential years would have still been alive. Why didn't they, or the family (including one historian, David Eisenhower), step forward at the time to correct the impression Ambrose was giving?
That interested me, too. However, I didn't see it as attacking Ambrose's accuracy in his original Eisenhower bio so much as attacking his honesty in his descriptions. It certainly appears that he didn't spend hundreds of hours with Eisenhower, and that Eisenhower didn't reach out to him.
The charge so far as his books goes seems to be (and I may be wrong about this) that as time went on and Ambrose's reputation grew, he used the fact that he'd claimed these hundreds of hours with Eisenhower to invent claims in those books.
BTW, Pincher, I don't know if you checked the Private Admin thread recently, but if you haven't, I'd be interested in your take. If you have checked and have no comment, no problem.
(if anyone else is reading and thinking Private Admin thread? What's that? email me.)
Pincher, for "narrative panache" read "self-aggrandizement" and you will discover meaning in that sentence.
For some weird reason, there's a general press reluctance to ostracize lying or plagiarizing historians. Look at how Doris Kearns Goodwin continues to receive adulation and accolades whenever she appears on public television. If anyone mentions that she ripped off the books of living historians, the general attitude is "Well, she said she was sorry." Uh, no. She blamed her researchers. Here's a tip; if you're too busy being a "celebrity historian" to do your own research and cite it correctly, you're no longer a historian. You're a hack.
I agree with your point, but I wonder if it's because the media is so uninterested in history that its members can't bring themselves to care.
To be honest, I hardly care about the claims against Ambrose. He's pretty dull. I've read a couple of his books, but I can't remember anything about them. I think he appeals to a certain kind of unimaginative mind that likes its historical prose so clear as to be opaque and wants to read historical opinions decidedly mainstream but with enough of a tilt to the right that readers can feel good about the country's history and the men who have created it. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. It's certainly better than the tiresome tropes of leftist historians. But it ain't for me. I didn't read Ambrose before these recent claims, and I certainly won't read him now.
As for Kearns, I have Team of Rivals on my shelves and I might get to it eventually because I like reading books on Lincoln, but I don't think I've bothered to read any of her other work. There was another Lincoln biographer -- Stephen Oates, I believe -- who also had similar claims of plagiarism made against him, but what came of it I don't know. I didn't care for his work, either.
It's funny how most of these historians I can remember being accused of lying or plagiarism simply held little interest for me. You would think that if a historian was going to be scandalous, he would also try to be interesting. In fact, the only historian I was disappointed to hear get caught up in a similar scandal was Joseph Ellis. He created a personal Vietnam war history he didn't possess in order to titillate his students with oblique references to his heroic past. But whatever his fabulous personal tales, Ellis was a genuine talent, a historian whose gift at getting into the minds of the men he wrote about was remarkable.
There's that line by Mencken about historians being failed novelists. I think it's unfair in most cases. Most good historians embrace their subject matter from a young age. And with enough novelists turning to write about history, one could easily make the opposite claim, that novelists are failed historians. But in his histories, Ellis certainly has a novelist's talent for imagining the detailed characters of men he never met and weaving a believable story of how it shaped their destiny.
Every year, Mount Holyoke calls my sister to ask her to donate to the Alumnae Fund and every year, she asks them if Joseph Ellis is still teaching there. When they say yes, she politely declines to contribute.
One of her friends was almost kicked out on an honor code charge because she had a still-in-its-package candle in her room. And they kept Joseph Ellis? The selectivity of their honor code sickens my sister and she won't give them a dime until he's gone.
I had to read a bunch of Ambrose's stuff on Ike for my American History comp. It was okay. I've read a lot of history I've liked better and that was better-written.
This stupid old bag Doris Kearns Goodwin is an interminable bore.
Whenever I see her on TV my stomach heaves in gut-churning revulsion and I beg for someone to gouge my eyeballs out, and puncture my eardrums, with a screwdriver.
Just fucking awful.
The Joseph Ellis episode was disappointing and bewildering to me. The thing is, judging by the courses I took with him, he was a great teacher even without the made up personal anecdotes. I never took his Vietnam course, so I never heard any of that, but he did come to a political science class I was taking and talk about his experiences with CORE. Ooops, I guess that was all lies too.
Pincher is right - Ellis is truly talented. He writes with an elegance and skill that is rare among historians.
I never cared much for Ambrose.
Ellis' sin was really a minor one of ego. I'm certain it got him in some T.A.'s pants. I'm pretty confident his war story had no impact on his written work, which is brilliant.
Team of Rivals is pedestrian and interminable, and its thesis (Abe the All Knowing Puppetmaster) is laughable.
I took one on history and biography and a capstone course on 20th century intellectual history. He was also on my honors thesis committee.
The course on history and biography was especially interesting because he was at the very, very early stages of work on his Jefferson biography. It was fascinating to get a glimpse at how a historian plans a project like that.
20th century intellectual history is not the kind of course I would expect Ellis to teach students. What did he cover in it?
I know HS freshmen who've been pilloried for citing incorrectly. While they are learning how to do it. Yet so-called "historians" get away with it every day. Go figure.
Well, it was over 15 years ago, and mainly what I remember is the culture war, race/multiculturalism, and the canon. I know we read Schlesinger's The Disuniting of America and Robert Hughes's The Culture of Complaint. I'm pretty sure we also read Kevin Phillips, but beyond that, I don't really remember. Not good, considering we read 14-15 books.
On the other hand, if Livy hadn't plagiarized Polybius, we wouldn't have a lot of the story of Hannibal. Polybius was an eyewitness, but much of Polybius was lost. Fortunately, Livy was a shameless plagiarist and his books survive!