Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, and Fraud in the Writing of American History

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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 ...

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New York, New York, U.S.A. 2004 Hardcover New 1586482440. 287 pages. "Woodrow Wilson, a practicing academic historian before he took to politics, defined the importance of why: ... '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 Read more Show Less

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New York, New York, U.S.A. 2004 Hardcover New 1586482440. FLAWLESS COPY, PRISTINE, NEVER OPENED--287 pages; clean and crisp, tight and bright pages, with no writing or markings ... to the text. --EXPOSES POPULAR PLAGIARISTS & FRAUDS--TABLE OF CONTENTS: Introduction: two-faced history * Ch. 1 The rise of consensus history * Ch. 2 Professions of history * Ch. 3 The new history and its promoters * Ch. 4 In the eye of the storm * Ch. 5 Falsification: the case of Michael Bellesiles * Ch. 6 Plagiarism: the cases of Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin * Ch. 7 Fabrication: the case of Joseph Ellis * Conclusion: the future of the past. --DESCRIPTION: Woodrow Wilson, a practicing academic historian before he took to politics, defined the importance of why: "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 sla Read more Show Less

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Overview

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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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
An adviser to the American Historical Association on plagiarism, Hoffer focuses on the four most notorious recent cases of professional historical misconduct in this useful and reasonably argued study: Michael Bellesiles's manufacturing of data in Arming America; Joseph Ellis's fabrication of a fraudulent Vietnam-era past for himself; and the documented plagiarisms of Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose. In the case of Goodwin, historian Hoffer, of the University of Georgia, cites not only the much-written-about instances of copying in The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys but also the L.A. Times's investigative work showing that Goodwin plagiarized from books by Joseph Lash, Grace Tully (Franklin Roosevelt's secretary) and Hugh Gregory Gallagher when cobbling together her Pulitzer Prize-winning No Ordinary Time. With regard to Ambrose, Hoffer goes back to the historian's earliest works to document an apparently lifelong pattern of word theft. In the end, Hoffer sees the sins of Bellesiles (falsifying research data) and Ellis (lying to students and the press about his personal history) as in a different and smaller league. Hoffer examines these cases in the broader context of the professionalization of history, the battle between academic and popular history, and professional standards. Those concerned with the integrity and future of the field will find this analysis illuminating. Agent, Scott Waxman. (Oct.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
As a member of the American Historical Association's professional division, Hoffer (history, Univ. of Georgia) is a historian's historian when it comes to helping out his craft. His is apparently the first book-length assessment of how four high-profile dishonesty cases-involving popular (but fully minted Ph.D.s) Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin and the very academic Michael Bellesiles and Joseph Ellis-have shaken American historiography in the last few years, and on that basis alone every academic library and many public libraries should own this work. But among its flaws is his generally penetrating survey of American historiography, which ignores European historiography-and, except for a dismissive reference to Carl Becker, American Europeanists-to establish a misimpression that multiculturalism, for instance, is almost exclusively a recent American intellectual phenomenon. His argument that consensus history gives would-be plagiarizers an excuse is contradicted by his lack of enthusiasm for Marxist influences in the writing of history. And the correlation between Ellis's creation of a personal past with a predilection to spin speculative narratives that exceed what the documentary record can confirm is flimsy. Recommended without qualification, but this is the start of a debate only.-Scott H. Silverman, Bryn Mawr Coll. Lib., PA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A professor of history takes to the woodshed not only the recent high-profile plagiarizers and prevaricators (Bellesiles, Goodwin, Ambrose, Ellis) but also those whose acts of omission and commission made possible the whole dreary mess. Hoffer (Univ. of Georgia) brings a variety of capacities to this unpleasant task: he serves in the professional division of the American Historical Association, he knows some of those under scrutiny, he's a practicing historian. He believes each of his besmirched colleagues did, in fact, commit academic dishonesty, and he frankly condemns them for it. The proof he assembles is devastating-particularly the side-by-side comparisons of texts. There is no question that Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin played fast and loose with secondary sources, no question that Michael Bellesiles fabricated data for his Arming America (2000), no question that Joseph Ellis (see His Excellency, above) lied about serving in Vietnam. But Hoffer also sees in this sad sky a constellation of factors that enabled these personal and professional failures. He chides his own profession for partitioning their demesne into "popular" and "scholarly." Academic historians, he says, have become so specialized-so focused on the minutiae of ever narrower topics-that they often do not consider even worthy of discussion the highly popular histories and biographies for "general readers" that appear on bestseller lists (and often win prestigious prizes). These professors, Hoffer argues, abandon their watchdog roles. The author also blames commercial publishers for viewing works of popular history as commodities-things from which to make fast and sure profits. (Does anyone really care ifthey're original?) Television-and its viewers-get a spanking, as well, for helping make celebrities of scholars and for insisting on works that celebrate rather than analyze American history. Hoffer also provides a useful summary of the changes in-and politics of-American historiography. What emerges in this well-researched assessment of a nasty problem are both the author's love for his discipline and his grief for the losses it has sustained. Agent: Scott Waxman/Scott Waxman Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781586482442
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs
  • Publication date: 10/11/2004
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 6.42 (w) x 9.56 (h) x 1.11 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Charles Hoffer is professor of history at the University of Georgia. He is a member of the American Historical Association's professional division, which audits the standards of academic historians' work. The author of many books of academic history, he was also invited to advise the AHA on plagiarism. He lives in Georgia.

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Table of Contents

Introduction : two-faced history 1
Ch. 1 The rise of consensus history 17
Ch. 2 Professions of history 32
Ch. 3 The new history and its promoters 62
Ch. 4 In the eye of the storm 93
Ch. 5 Falsification : the case of Michael Bellesiles 141
Ch. 6 Plagiarism : the cases of Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin 172
Ch. 7 Fabrication : the case of Joseph Ellis 208
Conclusion : the future of the past 231
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