Tuesday, February 12, 2008

"Historians in the Hot Seat"

In light of Lindsey's recent comments on Ellis, I thought this posting would be an appropriate way to keep the discussion alive. I have to credit our fellow contributor, Brian Tubbs, and his website The American Founding Blog for inspiring me to write this posting. On his blog you will find a recent posting on David McCullough, and the criticism surrounding his work. One of the sources that Brian mentions is a CBS News article entitled Historians Under Fire. The article makes the claim that several popular historians have, in recent years, come under fire for some of their questionable research methods. The article mentions some of the accusations of plagiarism facing the late Stephen Ambrose, most of which have been confirmed through a detailed inquiry into several of his books. There is also mention of McCullough's questionable research methods, especially in regards to his biographies on John Adams and Harry Truman. The Truman allegations are virtually undeniable, a reality that even McCullough has admitted to. McCullough has also recently admitted to taking sources and quotations for his John Adams book out of context.

Ambrose and McCullough are not the only historians to come under attack. In recent years, several news organizations have published allegations against a number of leading historians. As we have already discussed, historian Joseph Ellis has been a popular target in recent years. (read Lindsey's posting below for more on Ellis). Doris Kerns Goodwin, the highly acclaimed presidential historian and Pulitzer Prize winning author of No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and the very popular Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, has faced some severe criticism for plagiarism that is virtually indisputable. Both the New York Times and The Weekly Standard broke the stories regarding Goodwin's plagiarism. They point out the fact that Goodwin’s book The Fitzgerald’s and the Kennedy’s is virtually a carbon copy of work done by authors Rose Kennedy, Hank Searl, and Lynne McTaggart. Peter King of the L.A. Times has also noted that Goodwin's Pulitzer Prize winning book No Ordinary Time consists of several pages that are a virtual copy of Joseph Lash’s Eleanor and Franklin and Hugh Gregory Gallagher’s FDR’s Splendid Deception. The plagiarism in Goodwin's works is so blatant that several newspapers have published her writings along side the stolen texts, proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Goodwin copied from other sources (just so I don't get in trouble, you can click here and here for sources on Goodwin's plagiarism).

The History News Network has put together a list of historians in the "hot seat." Faced with the allegations of plagiarism, these historians face a difficult road in recovering their lost credibility. After all, plagiarism is to the writer, what steroids is to the athlete. Lesson to the wise: CITE YOUR SOURCES!!! It's really not that hard. Here is the link to the History News Network's article on plagiarism, and here is the link to the History News Network's list of "Historians in the Hot Seat."


Lindsey Shuman said...

I am in total agreement with all the negative press that Kerns Goodwin has received. She is not only a cheat, but also a liar. She stated on PBS's "NewsHour" with Jim Lehrer that she had in fact copied the work of others, but that it was all "unintentional" and a "big mistake." I'm sorry but spilling your coffee is "unintentional." Copying the work of another is outright cheating.

I also think that Ambrose deserves the negative publicity he's been getting. Recent investigations of his books have revealed that several of them also contain a large amount of plagiarized material. Wikipedia has published Ambrose's defense, in which he states, "I tell stories. I don't discuss my documents. I discuss the story. It almost gets to the point where, how much is the reader going to take? I am not writing a Ph.D. dissertation."

As far as McCullough goes, I would not label his blunders with the feared word of plagiarism. In fact, they are far from that. McCullough's problem is the fact that he writes as a journalist. He is constantly sensationalizing his subject, just as a reporter would sensationalize a top story. McCullough lacks the needed historical inquiry, which is what gets him in trouble. This is also why he is such a popular writer. The general public loves watered-down history that requires little thought. Don't get me wrong; I think people like McCullough serve a purpose. He is not, however, a cutting-edge historian like Nash or Wood.

Canadian-American said...

Interesting topic of discussion. I had no idea that so many historians were being investigated for plagarizm.

I am not a major history buff. I doubt that I could participate in most of the discussions you seem to have on this blog. I am simply not that well read.

I do want to say though that I appreciate good, honest, and well written history from those that do understand it. It upsets me when I hear about Ambrose and others that have plagarized.

I've only read one of McCulloughs books (1776). I think your point about him writing like a journalist is very appropriate. You can tell the difference from his writing and the writing of other historians. McCullough is far less analytical. It's as if he is simply telling a story.

Brad said...

I actually have to clarify a comment I made in Lindsey's posting on Joseph Ellis. I stated that I thought it impossible for an historian to lie or plagiarize and still win the Pulitzer Prize. After an in-depth reading of the Kerns Goodwin scandal I have to recant my statement. It is obvious that you can cheat and win when it comes to writing, which is a very unfortunate thing indeed!

Raven said...

I like Ellis, despise Ambrose, and don't care about McCullough. I've never even heard of this Kerns Goodwin lady, but will never read her stuff after hearing all that.

Brian Tubbs said...

I won't defend Ambrose or Goodwin, other than to say that SOME of their work IS excellent and noteworthy. I don't believe in throwing the baby out with the bath water, but I also don't believe in letting situations like plagiarism go without holding them accountable.

Brian Tubbs said...

As for David McCullough...

I agree (to a POINT) with what Lindsey has said in that McCullough writes like a journalist. And I agree 100% that he writes as a storyteller. I see nothing wrong with this, in that this style inspires greater interest in history.

However, I think what's behind MOST (not all) of the criticism of David McCullough is that we've defined "cutting edge" and "historical inquiry" as being "digging up dirt" and/or negative revisionism. In other words, in order for a historian to gain respect in certain circles of the historical scholarship community, he or she can't be seen as patriotic or positive.

Cynicism is the order of the day, and I think it's a crying shame.

Brad said...

Brian brings up an important point that I would like run with.

Does "scholarly" inquiry require an historian to, as Brian put it, "dig up dirt" that is often negative or "unAmerican?" Does the accepted norm of today's historiography require the historian to focus on the cloudy misdeeds of the past? In many instances, I am forced to agree with Brian 100%. In other cases, I think that much of history (American history in our case) has been distorted from its true nature. For too long historians have been writing "feel-good" history that ignores the truth. There is a darker side to many historical events that needs to be told.

As far as McCullough goes, I think that there is, without question, a measure of jealousy within the historical community towards McCullough. He may not be the foremost expert of any history (I would agree with anyone on that issue), but he has gained a huge following. I don't see Nash, Wood, Ellis, Appleby, or any other early American historian getting HBO movie deals. I don't think we will see Tom Hanks directing a miniseries on the "cutting-edge" scholarship that currently exists. Is this a bad or good thing? I'll let you decide.

Lindsey Shuman said...

I have to respectfully disagree a little bit with Brian and Brad. I think McCullough is looked down upon because, in the end, he simply repeats the research others have already done (and he makes a killing doing it). McCullough has never added any new unique perspectives to any historical inquiry. He's a journalist. He should stick at what he knows and does best. He may have a huge folloowing and he may be entertaining, but I think such approaches can actually hurt the public understanding of history. Too many people take McCullough for gospel, as if he is the foremost expert of history. If people could only know the truth!

As far as current trends in historiography are concerned, I think it is about time that historians write and focus on (what Brad calls) "the darker side of history." For myself, I don't find this history to be "dark" in the least. We need historians to criticize the old trends that dominated history. The role of women, Blacks, Indians, etc. have been ignored in American historiography for too long. By mentioning these facts, historians are in no wise becoming unpatriotic. In fact, quite the contrary is the reality. I believe that by telling the true nature of the past, historians have become MORE patriotic. Learning the traditional history is simply a way to repeat the old biases that have plagued history for far too long. I for one am glad that we have moved past such trends.

Brad said...

Interesting take Lindsey.

I can see why you might think that McCullough is looked down upon by the historical community for simply being a journalist. I, however, disagree with that assumption. Look at John Meacham, Dave Palmer, Bruce Chadwick, etc. They are all primarily journalists. Not a one of them has the illustrious Ph. D. in history, yet they are all, for the most part, very respected for their contributions to history.

Again I have to emphasize my belief that so much of the anti-McCullough stems from the fact that he has been so very successful. Scholars in the field love to point out the fact that McCullough lacks those three simple letters: Ph.D. I think that McCullough should fight fire with fire and point out to the scholars that his bank account carries three extra digits than theirs!

This whole situation reminds me of what has been circulating within the English/Literature world. Scholars of English and literature detest the fact that the "uneducated" J.K Rowling has broken the record books in terms of sales. They point out that Rowling is hardly a William Shakespeare or a Charles Dickens. Yet the fact remains that she is the ALL-TIME best selling author in history. Rowling, like McCullough, may not be on the cutting edge of their respective genres, but that does not make them irrelevant.

As far as historiography is concerned, I will agree in part with what Lindsey has stated. It is a very good thing that modern historians have helped to shed light on issues that were left in darkness (i.e. slavery, women, etc). There are still, however, those select few that take things too far. Howard Zinn (Brian's favorite historian) comes to mind. He is not shedding new light on anything. Instead, he is simply pushing a liberal agenda that tweaks history to fit his beliefs.

Believe me, I am all for the "cutting-edge" historian that helps to shed light on the realities of slavery, the Native Americans, etc. These are essential and very patriotic topics to know about. Let's not confuse the issue here by wrapping patriotism into history. As we all know, patriotism takes on many different shapes and styles.

Brian Tubbs said...

Here's a question. Aren't historians, to a great extent, investigative journalists? In their case, they are investigating the past -- as opposed to news journalists who investigate the present. But they are investigative journalists, to a great extent, are they not?

I really believe that the reason David McCullough is looked down upon is three things:

1. He doesn't have a PhD - as Brad says. And the academic elitists feel like they need to remind us of this fact.

2. Jealousy - can't put that any better than Brad does.

3. David McCullough's interpretation of history is POSITIVE. He actually admires and celebrates the people he profiles, like John Adams. This is not acceptable to many in the "academic elite" camp. I may be wrong, but the more I read up on the debates within historical scholarship, the more convinced I am that "cutting edge" means negative revisionism. If a historian isn't digging up dirt and trying to overturn icons, then he or she is not worthy of high respect and esteem.

Brian Tubbs said...

Lindsey writes: "Learning the traditional history is simply a way to repeat the old biases that have plagued history for far too long."

I think there's some stereotyping and lumping going on here. There is much to COMMEND in "traditional history." Far too often revisionist historians (who seem to dominate the modern scholarship community in history) dismiss or demean "traditional history" for all its faults. My response is that it has faults just as the revisionist school of thought has faults. We need to guard against the extremes here.

I think it's a well-established fact, for example, that George Washington owned slaves. Does this mean that we can't celebrate and honor him, as David McCullough does in 1776?

I am asking a specific question there, but I think that's really getting at the heart of this. If the modern school of historical scholarship is saying "NO," then I frankly want nothing to do with it. I'll take David McCullough and "traditional history" any day of the week - and twice on Sunday. And I'll continue to buy McCullough's books and fatten his bank account to the displeasure and grumbling of his revisionist, elitist colleagues.

If, however, we can RETAIN our heroes and icons, while still respecting and learning about the achievements of others who have been neglected in "traditional history" - in other words, if we can take a more moderate course in revising history - then I'm all for that.

Lindsey Shuman said...

You make some interesting points Brian, but again I would like to mention the other side of the coin, with regards to this issue.

First off, journalists are not at all similar to historians. A journalist investigates for the sole purpose of producing an entertaining and provocative story. Historians, however, endeavor to uncover the truth of the past as best they can, regardless of their desire or ability to tell a good story. This is the primary difference between McCullough and REAL historians. I by no means begrudge McCullough for what he does. He has every right, and has been very successful. For that I salute him.

As far as your opinion that modern historical scholarship is somehow inferior, biased, or unpatriotic, I would argue that those are exactly the terms that apply to the "old school" way of doing history. The most important thing to remember is that is somebody has something "negative" to say about the past, they are not automatically unpatriotic. This is a ploy used by the neo-conservatives to suggest that any type of dissention is "unpatriotic." Remember that Jefferson himself stated that, "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism."

I understand where you are coming from. I think that we are probably more on the same page than meets they eye. We simply express it differently. Your example of George Washington is appropriate to prove my point. You are right that we can and should honor men like Washington, Franklin, etc. for what they have accomplished. Mentioning their "bad sides", however, does not necessarily diminish their greatness. After all, these were imperfect human beings, not demigods. Pointing out that Washington owned hundreds of slaves or that Franklin had lots of sex with prostitutes does not mean suggest that the historian bringing up such truths is unpatriotic or demeaning, but that they simply want to reveal the truth. Once we are able to discover the TRUE nature of our Founding Fathers, the nobler they will become BECAUSE of their imperfections.

I cringe at the thought that we would return to the "old ways" of doing history. Why should we give up the advancements we've made? Because some factual truths are less-than-tasteful? Absolutely not! We must continue for the truth's sake. Let us continue to give women, slaves, Native Americans, the common person of the past a voice. History is much more than simply remembering the elites.

Steve Becknall said...

Why do I always miss the cool debates! i end up joining them after everyone has made like 5 postings! Better late than never!

As far as the plagiarism is concerned, shame on any "professional" historian (or any other person for that matter). That is completely unacceptable no matter the circumstances! Anyone that can't get with that should probably avoid writing because they are likely cheaters themselves!

Your ongoing argument about historiography, McCullough has been fun to read! To be honest, I don't have anything new to add (sorry for disappointing). I suppose I could write that I love or hate McCullough or that I give a care either way, but the honest truth is that I don't. My own personal experience has taught me that all writers (regardless of experience, education or background) ALL WRITERS look at things from a different perspective. Sometimes that perspective is total B.S. but usually not. So as far as who is the better writer, I say let them all write. In the end, the crap will sink and the good stuff will rise (and this is true of historiography as well). If a book is TRULY unpatriotic, regardless of the "scholarship" it will sink. If the book is good (and happens to be extremely critical) it will still rise because of its "goodness."

There is my 10 cents, now have at me! I dare ya! =)

Brian Tubbs said...

Lindsey and everyone, I need to be clear here. I'm NOT saying that all those who dig up dirt from the past are "unpatriotic." I've tried to be careful not to throw that label around. I did use the label "cynical," but that doesn't mean someone is unpatriotic. And I would only apply that label to some revisionist historians - not all of them.

So, just so we're clear, I'm not suggesting that a historian who uncovers and highlights negative or controversial aspects of US history is unpatriotic. I am NOT saying that, and don't mean to suggest that.

I do, however, believe that a dynamic has taken root in historical scholarship today, in which it's become EXPECTED that scholars are to do this. There seems to be a bias in place, that does lean toward cynicism and "knocking down icons."

What I support is BALANCE. By all means, we should move away from the Parson Weems-type embellishments often (not always) found in "traditional history," but let's not throw the baby out with the bath water.

Brad said...

I am in agreement with your last statement, Brian. We should seek for balance in our understanding of history. I think that the sensible center is always best (though my beliefs as an Independent may be influencing me here).

I also have to say that I agree with Brian in regards to a basic trend that is taking place in history. For too long I've been hearing professors, classmates, and others support the notion that revisionist history is best, as if there is some desperate demand of justice to see that our icons are made into criminals.

I also agree with Lindsey that there are a lot of good trends to the newer historiography that is being explored. It is wonderful that we take a larger, more in-depth look at our past. For the longest time all you heard about was Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, etc. Now we are learning and focusing on common people, women, Blacks, etc. This is a WONDERFUL trend that I am in complete agreement with. This does not mean, however, that we should cast aside the "elites." After all, they did play a VERY important role.

Now, let me pose a new question to you all. What trend in the historiography of the American Revolution do you think has been the best? For example, at the turn of the last century there was a strong focus on the economic origins of the revolution. This was then replaced by a political focus in the 50s. Today, of course, there is a more social/cultural focus (pioneered primarily by Gordon Wood's work).

Your thoughts

Mazza said...

That is some very upsetting news about Ambrose. He is one author I loved to read.

Brian Tubbs said...

Answering Brad's question about trends...my answer will shock some. But I actually DO appreciate the focus in recent years on the common man and woman during the Revolutionary period. What was happening in the lives of colonial women, slaves and free blacks, and (perhaps most interesting for me) the rank-and-file of the Continental army.

Brad, I know you're not a Bruce Chadwick fan, but I enjoyed reading The First American Army, where Chadwick talks about (among other things) the rise of the chaplain corps. in the Continental Army. In one section, he even talks about one of the chaplains committing suicide, due to the stress and anxiety of the war and its sufferings. Very interesting.

So, for all my talk in defending the iconic heroes of the Revolution, I do want everyone (perhaps especially Lindsey :-) ) to know that I really do appreciate learning more about the common men and women of that period.

Lindsey Shuman said...

I am not at all surprised by your position Brian. Like I said before, I think we are more on the same page than we think we are! By the way, when it comes to the question of what era of historiography is best, I AGREE WITH BRIAN!!! =)

David Mabry said...

I am usually the last, so does that give me the last wrod? Ok, to address some earlier notions. Historians are in a way, investogators, particularly revisionists. When based on actual fact and primary sources, I really appreciate the work these serious scholars do. For instance, Dr. Crisp, who turn the whole notion of Davy Crockett heroically dying in battle inside the Alamo, on its head. This is some serious new evidence to consider when reading, teaching or just plain trying to nderstand our past.
I can appreicate McCulloch and other, although not "professional" historians or scholars their work is keeping some public interest in history. We so need that. I have so many disinterested students that I wear historical costumes to class, kick trash cans, throw books in frustration at historical events (the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions was that one) anything to show them that history lives and can be passionate. The White House of the COnfederacy was about to close its doors due to lack of interest for goodness sakes!!! Thank Clio that the city if Richmond agreed to fund for one more year. Maybe I will actually get to see it. Businesses and raods are being built over our battelfields as we speak. This public exposure to even generalized history is important to our craft, as historians.
Plagarism is an evil that should carry dire penalties for the sneakthieves that would dare copy the hard work of another. There ought to be some kind of professional oath that carries an afterworld punishment so heinious that no writer would dare vilate the sacred code and steal another's well crafted thoughts.
Whew!!! I hope somebody reads this, I could be planning my next great historical lesson right now.

Brad said...

Nice of you to join us David! =) First off, let me just say that you deserve some MAJOR kidos for trying to teach history these days. i once heard a professor make the comment that we live in the United States of AMNESIA not America. People just don't care about this country's history. To them, it is irrelevant. You are so right when you mention all of the sites that are being destroyed. Again, nobody cares. I wish Americans appreciated their history like those in Europe did. I am amazed at how much emphasis European nations and people put on their history. Why in the hell can we not do the same? Our past is incredible!

With such a lack of interest in American history, I guess that means it is all hands on deck. We need the scholars, private writers, Ph. D.'s and laymen. When I saw McCullough in person he told us stories about American citizens that didn't even know that they Pilgrims arrived on the East coast. he also mentioned that a group of students honestly believed that Washington and Franklin lived AFTER the First World War! Wake up America and learn something about your country for a change...I mean...learn something other than hip-hop, MTV, and Desperate Housewives.

Lindsey Shuman said...

Ooooo...looks like I might get the last word, since this discussion has simmered down. And the last word is...........Vote McCullough in 08! Just kidding! There is no last word. Hopefully we will continue to enjoy this debate in the future (or debates like it). Thank you for all of your wonderful insights. I'm glad that we don't all agree, but that we can respectfully disagree. It's what I love most about this blog.

Anonymous said...

thanks for shear with us ,, thanks ,,

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