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Historians and Plagiarism

The Borrowers

Reviewed by Mark Lewis
Sunday, November 14, 2004; Page BW04

PAST IMPERFECT

Facts, Fictions, Fraud -- American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin

By Peter Charles Hoffer. PublicAffairs. 287 pp. $26

SCANDALS AND SCOUNDRELS

Seven Cases That Shook the Academy

By Ron Robin. Univ. of California. 277 pp. Paperback, $19.95

In January 2002, with a scandal in full bloom over charges that the popular historian Stephen Ambrose had committed plagiarism, I received an anonymous letter from a self-described "literary whistleblower" asserting that Doris Kearns Goodwin "has the same problem" as Ambrose and "ought to be called to account." The letter offered examples from Goodwin's 1987 bestseller, The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, that were strikingly similar to passages in earlier books by other authors. Like Ambrose, Goodwin had footnoted her sources but failed to put quotation marks around the purloined passages.

"You will notice that I have not signed this letter, and you may well think this cowardly," the whistleblower wrote. "Perhaps it is. I am, however, an academic historian working in the northeastern U.S. I am a young professor looking forward to tenure and nurturing a career in serious scholarship. . . . Suffice to say that it would not be a good career move for a junior professor to raise the questions about Dr. Kearns Goodwin that I raise in this letter. Nevertheless, I feel the issue of academic integrity must be addressed and that Dr. Kearns Goodwin should be held to the same standard as Dr. Ambrose and every other worker in the field."

Academic disputes are rarely front-page news. This one was different: Ambrose and Goodwin were celebrities. Ambrose's hugely popular D-Day books had touched off the hero-worshipping Greatest Generation phenomenon. Arguably he was America's most popular historian. But within the academy, as Ron Robin notes in Scandals and Scoundrels, Ambrose was derided for having crossed "the line dividing intellectual activity from sentimental boosterism." Goodwin was better respected within the academy but remained suspect in some quarters -- and was, like Ambrose, subject to jealousy -- due to her enormous success as a mainstream author and a television commentator. Still, each of these popular historians held a doctorate from a prestigious university, and each was charged with plagiarism -- a fundamental transgression that resonated strongly with journalists (and, indeed, with anyone who'd ever written a college term paper).

Ambrose had been exposed by the Weekly Standard, the same magazine that subsequently broke the Goodwin story, apparently after receiving a copy of this same "literary whistleblower" letter. "Together, the two denunciations shook the history profession to its core," University of Georgia historian Peter Charles Hoffer writes in Past Imperfect, adding, "One case of plagiarism by a star historian might be exceptional; two cases suggested a deeper problem."

Two unrelated scandals involving two non-celebrity historians, Joseph J. Ellis and Michael Bellesiles, were soon lumped in with the Ambrose-Goodwin imbroglio. Ellis, the bestselling author of Founding Brothers, had admitted lying to his Mount Holyoke College students about his personal life, falsely claiming, among other things, to have served in Vietnam. Bellesiles was accused of falsifying evidence in his prize-winning Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture, a book that had brought the wrath of gun enthusiasts down upon him. But it was the fame of Ambrose and Goodwin that made "the history scandal" a staple of the nation's editorial and op-ed pages in the winter of 2002. The American Historical Association declined to investigate, so Hoffer, then a member of the association's professional standards panel, decided to mount his own investigation. Past Imperfect is the result.

"While professionals fumbled the opportunity to construct a virtual national classroom in which they could have used the cases to teach sound historical methods, the journalists and pundits got all the lessons wrong," Hoffer writes. "The critics saw the cases either as symptoms of a global meltdown of standards or proof of the cupidity of a few sneaks. Because they did not think in historical terms, or understand the long historical causes of the crisis, they did not see the long dark side" of American history-writing. Hoffer traces patterns of inadequate attribution back to such 19th-century luminaries as George Bancroft and Francis Parkman, who blithely copied passages from their secondary sources without using quotation marks. Current standards, Hoffer says, were not firmly established until the 1960s, when insurgent "New History" practitioners used them as a cudgel against older "consensus" historians, whom the insurgents accused of shoddy scholarship. Then came the culture wars of the 1990s, which arrayed dour, myth-debunking academic historians against triumphalists like Ambrose, who eagerly gave the mass market the heroes it craved. The triumphalists prospered while the academics retreated to their ivory towers, pursued by conservative critics eager to hoist left-leaning professors on their own professional-standards petard. The result: recurrent plagiarism scandals.

Hoffer is more forgiving of Goodwin than of Ambrose, who "did it again and again" whereas Goodwin "made mistakes, inadvertently and infrequently." Still, Hoffer pronounces both historians guilty: "They stole others' words." Ron Robin, a historian at the University of Haifa in Israel, is more sanguine. Whereas Past Imperfect concludes with a ringing call for the academy to take a stand "against professional malfeasance," Robin in Scandals and Scoundrels notes that for postmodernists, "the concept of intellectual malpractice is of limited epistemological value." (Full disclosure: Both Robin and Hoffer cite my Ambrose coverage for Forbes.com.) The earnest Hoffer aims his book at the general reader; the bemused Robin writes more for academic consumption. Hoffer takes stands and offers prescriptions (e.g., better self-policing by historians' groups); Robin lays out several possible interpretations of the scandals without indicating which, if any, he embraces. But Robin clearly does not share Hoffer's sense that the profession confronts a crisis. For Robin, the recent media eruptions may simply "be part of a necessary process of reinvention." The scandals reflect a long struggle in the fields of history and anthropology between traditionalists, "who claim the production of objective knowledge as the primary goal of the discipline," and "a powerful coalition of literary and social theorists, who dismiss such a concept as elusive, naive and fatally flawed." Hopelessly split, the professional organizations cannot adjudicate these disputes, so the disputants turn to the media. "The public scandal is, then, border control by other means."

Life on that border has quieted down a bit since 2002. Recently, attribution problems were found in books by the noted Harvard legal scholars Laurence Tribe and Charles Ogletree, both of whom pleaded guilty with an explanation. Yet this story had no legs outside of Boston. After the plagiarisms and fabrications of Jayson Blair at the New York Times and Jack Kelley at USA Today, chagrined journalists may be less eager to point the finger at errant academics. And the public does not much care, unless the author in question is a celebrity.

Bellesiles resigned from Emory University, but Arming America remains readily available. Ambrose died of cancer in October 2002, but bookstore shelves still groan beneath the weight of his oeuvre. Ellis accepted a year's suspension from Mount Holyoke but presumably spent that year working on his biography of George Washington, just published to favorable reviews in the mainstream press. Goodwin is once again a talking head in good standing, holding forth most recently on the World Series triumph of her beloved Red Sox. And somewhere in the northeastern United States, an anonymous young historian continues that slow trudge toward tenure, no doubt grateful for the prudence that ensured that his or her most significant literary effort to date -- that whistle-blowing letter -- was mailed without a signature. •

Mark Lewis is books editor of Forbes.com. He is writing a book about America's colonial experience in the Philippines.


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