Public attention has focused in recent years on charges of professional misconduct by four prominent historians, all authors of best-selling and award-winning books. Doris Kearns Goodwin and the late Stephen Ambrose were accused of plagiarism. Joseph Ellis was charged with lying about his personal experience during the Vietnam/civil rights era. Michael Bellesiles was said to have falsified research data for his Arming America. In the enlightening Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin, University of Georgia historian Peter Charles Hoffer, who has advised in cases of similar charges against other historians, helps nonhistorians understand these episodes.
Hoffer examines each of the four recent situations in detail. He acknowledges that both Ambrose, who died in 2002, and Goodwin are "superb storytellers" and that pinpointing plagiarism in earlier trade history books would be difficult. Many of those books had virtually no reference apparatus at all. The case of Ellis was personal and while Hoffer does not condone what Ellis did, he does think that these personal fictions "seemed to work wonders for Ellis's powers of historical description and insight into the character of his subjects." The Bellesiles case involved "serious deviations from accepted practices in carrying out [and] reporting results from research," as stated in one official report.
Hoffer writes that when the 19th century ended, historians portrayed the U.S. as "one people, forming one nation, with one history." This view "embraced profound fictions," for the most part excluding women, people of color, and slavery. Significant changes came in the 1960s with the "new history." But this also brought a demand for "methodological sophistication that . . . widened the divide between academic and popular history." Hoffer says this led the profession to fail to provide what had made consensus history so compelling: "proof that American history could inspire and delight." Roger Bishop is a Nashville bookseller and frequent contributor to BookPage.