Michael A. Bellesiles Tries to Live Down Scholarly Scandal





On this hot summer day, Michael A. Bellesiles is sitting outside the abandoned red brick armory here. It is, he said, a much friendlier building than the one that occupied this spot in 1877. In the middle of what was then a working-class neighborhood northwest of Yale, the old Gothic armory, made of stone with no windows on the first floor, was meant to withstand the American precursor of a Molotov cocktail, he explained: “It was a testament to middle-class fears.”...

His book “1877: America’s Year of Living Violently,” which will be published next week, is an attempted comeback for Mr. Bellesiles, who has languished in a kind of academic no-man’s land for the past decade after a scandal surrounding his previous book cut short what looked to be a promising career. “I’d like to think that anyone reading it would give it a fair chance,” he said of his latest work.

So far, the energetic debate about Mr. Bellesiles, scholarship and second chances on academic and education Web sites has focused mostly on his 2000 book, “Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture.” It argued that most Americans did not possess firearms until after the Civil War, a radically different interpretation of the country’s gun-owning history and one that entangled him in the bitter and shrill argument over Second Amendment rights....

Mr. Bellesiles and his supporters have maintained that the uproar was politically motivated and his mistakes minor. In promotional material for “1877,” Mr. Bellesiles’s current publisher, the nonprofit New Press, described him as returning to writing after becoming “the target of an infamous ‘swiftboating’ campaign by the National Rifle Association.”

That characterization of Mr. Bellesiles, who has been teaching history part time at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain while working two other part-time jobs, did precisely what he had hoped to avoid: revive the controversy about “Arming America.” Then, in June, an article he wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education about teaching students military history during wartime stoked further discussion of Mr. Bellesiles’s credibility. In it he mentioned a student who told him a brother had been killed in Iraq — a claim that turned out to be false. The Chronicle, which investigated the incident after readers raised questions, said the student confessed he had lied to Mr. Bellesiles.

“It broke my heart,” Mr. Bellesiles said. “I always trusted my students.”...

Marc Favreau, Mr. Bellesiles’s editor at the New Press, perhaps chastened after saying too much in the publicity materials, offered only a brief reply when asked about the promotional copy.

“The New Press didn’t have a role in ‘Arming America,’ ” he wrote in an e-mail. “We’re thrilled to publish Michael’s extraordinary new book and confident it will be judged on its own considerable merits.” Since the flood of criticism, the press has changed Mr. Bellesiles’s biographical material....



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