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Hollow history

A former plagiarism adviser for the American Historical Association says his profession is in deep trouble. But some colleagues say his case doesn't add up.

WITH FAT BIOGRAPHIES of sundry Founding Fathers appearing every other month and bookstore tables still piled high with odes to the Greatest Generation, the public's appetite for the American past appears as healthy as ever. But according to University of Georgia historian Peter Charles Hoffer, we're being sold a bill of goods.

In his new book, "Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud -- American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin" (PublicAffairs), Hoffer contends that his profession "has fallen into disarray" and aims a polemical blast at his fellow historians for condoning sloppy scholarship and an anything-goes ethical climate.

A specialist in Colonial history and American jurisprudence, Hoffer is a respected scholar whose previous work has generally earned the esteem of his peers. Now, setting himself up as judge, jury, and executioner, Hoffer puts historians in the dock -- and throws the book at them."

American history," he writes, "is two-faced" -- split between celebratory popularizers who often value rousing narrative over scholarly rigor and academic specialists whose jargon-riddled, often dour monographs ignore the ordinary reader. Meanwhile, Hoffer accuses the American Historical Association (AHA), where he has served as an adviser on plagiarism and a member of its professional standards division, of abdicating its responsibility to enforce basic scholarly principles in both realms.

Hoffer revisits the now-familiar cases of a quartet of historians brought low by scandal in 2002: former Emory University professor Michael Bellesiles, who was accused of falsifying data in "Arming America," his controversial 2000 study of 18th- and 19th-century gun culture; Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, who were both found to have used material from other scholars without full attribution; and Mount Holyoke's Joseph Ellis, who was rebuked for spinning tales of his nonexistent Vietnam combat record in classes and newspaper articles. According to Hoffer, these were not just isolated incidents but symptoms of a wider problem -- one that goes far beyond the headlines to the very way history is written and consumed in America.

Hoffer's case is impassioned, but the final verdict will belong to his peers. Is the entire historical profession in America, as Hoffer wrote in a recent e-mail, "sailing close to the edge"? Or, as some of his colleagues are already suggesting, is Hoffer himself guilty of exaggeration and distortion?

According to Hoffer, the rot can be traced to the roots of American historiography. In the 19th century, America's founding historians thought they were merely assembling facts that were out there waiting to be found. Here were the origins of "consensus history," which stressed unity over division and trumpeted the ideals of American democracy and the march of Manifest Destiny. Driven by nationalistic impulses, scholarly pioneers like Francis Parkman and George Bancroft (both from Massachusetts, and both namesakes of prestigious history prizes) produced dramatic narratives to inspire their countrymen, such as Parkman's "The Oregon Trail" (1849) and Bancroft's 10-volume "A History of the United States" (1834-74).

America's classic historians were powerful stylists, Hoffer writes, but their history was "inherently fallacious" and grievously incomplete. These celebratory narratives "falsified our history because [they] left out or dismissed the experience of more than half of America's population: Indians, women, servants, slaves, and immigrants." In addition to distorting the record, Hoffer asserts, Parkman and his fellows were also pioneers in plagiarism, freely copying whole passages from other historians without bothering to use quotation marks.

With the rise of the modern university system in the late 19th century, the culture of gentlemanly amateurs gave way to university-trained professionals who swore allegiance to science. But scholarship little improved, Hoffer contends. Instead, it simply dressed up the old bogus myths of the past in pseudo-scientific jargon, relying on fabrication and, once again, "plagiarism," as historians repeated, "without citation and without criticism, the old self-sustaining truisms."

The old model didn't fully give way until the 1960s. Animated by Marxism and inspired by the example of British labor historians like E.P. Thompson, the "new historians" (as Hoffer dubs them) began writing history from below, focusing on the neglected story of women, minorities, and the working class, even as the profession itself began diversifying. The study of slavery and slave culture in particular flourished in the 1970s, as scholars like Eugene D. Genovese, in his landmark 1974 work "Roll, Jordan, Roll," opened up new vistas on African-American history. At the same time, the AHA undertook new initiatives to elevate the profession, creating a Professional Division in 1974 to audit and set standards of historical scholarship.

But Hoffer sees serious problems here, too. Although the new historians helped create a culture of scrupulous attribution and methodological sophistication, they also retreated behind a wall of footnotes and obscure jargon -- and brought a relentlessly gloomy perspective to the teaching of American history. "Determined to withhold . . . proofs that American history could inspire and delight," Hoffer writes, the new historians lost touch with a general audience, who wanted more than a dim recitation of American failure.

This historiographical sea change, Hoffer argues, has led to deep fractures within the historical community. Today's academics -- the heirs of the new history -- dismiss historians who write with a popular touch and disdain readers who prefer their history chock-full of heroic derring-do. Meanwhile, superstar historians (abetted by trade publishers with lax scholarly standards) churn out cheery consensus history by another name, often built on outmoded (and sometimes deeply compromised) scholarship.

It is this chasm between history's academic and popular realms, Hoffer argues, that gave rise to the Ambrose, Ellis, Goodwin, and Bellesiles sagas. Hoffer is particularly harsh on Bellesiles, who resigned from his job at Emory and was stripped of the Bancroft Prize in the wake of the controversy over "Arming America."

To his defenders, the former Emory historian was the victim of a conservative plot, spearheaded by the National Rifle Association, to discredit Bellesiles' conclusion that, contrary to the image of the musket-wielding patriot, few early Americans owned functional guns. But in Hoffer's telling, Bellesiles engaged in deliberate "falsification" of his data. Furthermore, Hoffer asserts, Bellesiles published his book with the trade publisher Knopf (which eventually withdrew the book from circulation) rather than a scholarly press "in order to claim . . . immunity from close professional scrutiny." (While an investigative panel formed by the AHA found no outright falsification, they condemned Bellesilles' evasiveness about his source records, many of which could not be traced.)

As for Goodwin and Ambrose, who are also published by trade presses, Hoffer brushes aside their claims that the instances of missing footnotes or insufficient citations were just unintentional and isolated lapses in otherwise sound work. Whatever the intention, Hoffer writes, the end result is the same: "plagiarism," which under AHA standards, he notes, does not require actual intent to deceive. (He brings greater sympathy to the case of Joseph Ellis, whose scholarship itself was not questioned, suggesting that the same imaginative powers that led him to lie about his life story may have helped him write more subtle and nuanced books.)

But Hoffer reserves his bitterest jibes for the AHA, which last year gave up adjudicating cases of scholarly misconduct, citing its lack of public impact on the profession. To Hoffer, this is a serious abdication of responsibility. "We must start acting like professionals, instead of making believe we're professionals," he said in a recent phone interview. "One of the hallmarks of professionalism is to discipline erring members."

Hoffer himself, however, is facing the criticism of his peers, many of whom express skepticism about his dire picture of the profession.

Alan Taylor, a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "William Cooper's Town" (Knopf), applauds Hoffer's "courage" for his criticisms of the AHA, whose refusal to formally judge plagiarism charges (and other misdeeds) he calls "cowardly." But he scoffs at the suggestion that the entire profession is facing a grave ethical predicament."

I think Hoffer overly dramatizes it. The sun rises and several thousand historians go to work and produce scholarship that shows integrity," Taylor said in a recent interview. "I don't know anybody who goes around the graduate program at UC-Davis and says `Michael Bellesiles got taken down so we're in a crisis."

'Taylor also takes issue with Hoffer's expansive definition of plagiarism. To accuse Bancroft and Parkman of "plagiarism," Taylor argues, is simply ahistorical. "Our definition of plagiarism did not apply in the 19th century. It was the custom only to cite from the original document you quoted, and not the secondary source it appeared within. It wasn't just Parkman doing it -- everybody in that generation did it." As for the definition Hoffer applies to today's scholars, Taylor says, it sweeps up some instances of legitimate paraphrase and is "sometimes so hard and fast that we'd all be guilty of it."

Eric Foner, professor of history at Columbia University and former AHA president, says historians need to do a better job of monitoring professional misconduct, but he cautions that there are practical limits to what the AHA can do about it. "We don't have the power of sanction," he explains. "We can't take away a historian's license to practice." And misdeeds, he points out, hardly go unpunished. "Bad publicity is a pretty big sanction, especially if you're a popular historian."

But more importantly, the historians take issue with Hoffer's stark depiction of today's marketplace for history. Even within the popular realm, argues Taylor, there is a diversity of scholarship. "Certainly, a lot of the public prefers prepackaged patriotism," he says. "But take Howard Zinn -- is he out of touch with the public? His book ["A People's History of the United States"] is an all-time bestseller."

Besides, some say, academic training does not necessarily lead to better work. In the phone interview, Hoffer took aim at historian David McCullough (who does not hold a Ph.D.), noting that his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2001 biography of John Adams, while enjoyable, doesn't cite any sources that are less than 25 years old -- a sign, in Hoffer's view, that "scholarship doesn't matter." But Gordon S. Wood, professor of history at Brown and author, most recently, of "The Americanization of Ben Franklin" (Penguin), dismisses this complaint."

I don't think his scholarship was deficient," says Wood. "If you're interested in Adams' political theory, forget it, it's not here. It's really a very personal story of Adams and [his wife] Abigail. As long as you accept that, it's done superbly."

In the end, the debate may be less about footnotes and facts than about just how popular, in every sense of the word, history should be allowed to be. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a professor at Harvard and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning (and commercially successful) "A Midwife's Tale" (1991), shares some of Hoffer's reservations about shoddy history on the bestseller list. Still, she urges her peers to take a less proprietary attitude toward the past."

We need to have a little a bit of humility to recognize people can do what they want to with the past," says Ulrich. "Historians do not own history."

Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe. 

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