Blogs > Cliopatria > On Absentmindedness ...

Jul 16, 2004 8:22 am

On Absentmindedness ...

I've commonly lived middle-distance from the college or university and might walk or drive there from home. I drove if I was running late in the morning and, in distracted moments at the end of the day, it was easy to walk home, forgetting that I had driven to school. I used to think of it as apprenticing for my absentminded professorship and that I was doing quite well at it. Over at Early Modern Notes, Sharon maintains one of the best history blogs, which I read often, but she's apprenticing, too.

So, I'm reading her recommendation of July's Common-Place and her note that Cronaca still holds Common-Place accountable for giving"the infamous Michael Bellesiles a platform in their early issues." And, suddenly, Sharon's Early Modern Notes says – I kid you not:"Who is Michael Bellesiles and what is wrong with him? What have I missed? (Or forgotten ...)" There, there, dear, no one's stolen your automobile. You've left it in the lot over at school. Now, I understand that Sharon is English and that she is one of those unusual people who become Early Modernists, but still ...

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Richard Henry Morgan - 7/20/2004

From the British perspective l'affaire Bellesiles must have appeared, if at all, as a tempest in a teapot. News coverage of academia is rather attenuated -- all the more so with American family spats. The presence in British media was indeed small.

But there was an arc to the narrative, at least at the Guardian:

Sept. 12, 2000
A straight up report from Martin Kettle on the assertions of the book, just published.

October 15, 2001
John Sutherland repeats the claims of the book, points out it won a Bancroft, says there has been some criticism, and then says that Emory (which he helpfully places in the Bible and Gun Belt) has set up a tribunal. He concludes: "It is unprecedented for a tenured professor to be treated thus". Visions of Giordano Bruno burning at the stake.

February 12, 2002
Bearing no author's name, the Guardian reports in a short piece that Bellesiles has agreed to a formal investigation.

June 1, 2002
Oliver Burkeman, reporting from NY, gives an account of events, including the fact that the NEH removed their name from his fellowship -- as Oliver would have it, this is the thin wedge of fascism, which is apparently forever insinuating itself in the US, but somehow only finds real purchase in Europe.

December 16, 2002
The Guardian staff in a short piece reports that, after the Emory Report came out, the trustees of Columbia revoked the Bancroft Prize.

Sharon Howad - 7/19/2004

Absolutely. (Don't get me started on the idiocy of our libel law...)

Jonathan Dresner - 7/18/2004

But David Irving's lawsuit could have put a serious crimp in academic freedom of speech, and as such was, indeed, worth the attention it got.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/18/2004

Yes, well, you'll be glad to know that David Irving is marketing his historical wares here in the States with a conference at Cincinnati in September, I think it is, and one of the regulars at HNN will even be giving a paper at Irving's conference.
I suspect that one of the reasons Bellesiles hoped to extend his academic career in Great Britain was precisely because the case had so little attention on your side of the Atlantic. What a difference an ocean makes!

Sharon Howad - 7/18/2004

I really had no idea when I put in that question at EMN - which was a bit of an afterthought - what kind of minefield I was stepping into. Ralph has since commented that it was a 'difficult year'. That seems an understatement, now that I've spent a bit of time reading about it. I'm still not quite sure why it got *so* little attention over here (a search for "michael bellesiles" on produced something like 12,000 hits; on, a grand total of 70 - and very few of those seemed to be of any substance). I know I said on EMN that we're not exactly into the American thing about guns, but this was major academic fraud by a leading, prize-winning scholar in his field.

After all, we went to town on David Irving, and he was never exactly a reputable scholar in the first place. It didn't exactly rock the academic foundations.

Ralph E. Luker - 7/18/2004

Very interesting, Jonathan! My recollection is that 2000 was fairly early in HNN's history, if HNN existed at all then. Rick might be interested in having an article from you or you might want to post at Cliopatria about this case. I suppose it's too late to honor Fujimura with a place on "Hot Seat."

Jonathan Dresner - 7/18/2004

For what it's worth, the vast majority of the "class of 2002" were American historians of American history, which may account, at least partially, for our differing reactions (and Sharon's lack thereof). There are other factors; I'll agree that it was a bad year for our public image, and there were some systemic issues brought out in the process.

On the other hand, mention the name Fujimura -- a star archaeologist who singlehandedly distorted over a decade's worth of scholarship by repeatedly and systematically planting evidence from later finds in earlier digs and who was found out in 2000 -- in early Japan circles and see what happens.

Interestingly, one of the discussions of Fujimura on H-Japan included a caution that "it wasn't just a Japanese problem" and linked to the abovementioned Bellesiles page....

Ralph E. Luker - 7/18/2004

The Bellesiles page is amazing, is it not? And that doesn't even count the 165 comments back and forth on my first article for HNN, which was in defense of Michael's due process rights.
Of course, there are all sorts of reasons why a British historian of early modern Wales might not recall hearing of Bellesiles. As you may have noted, I sometimes have a way of acknowledging someone else's good work (in this case, hers) with a nudge about some inconsequential error.
That said, I'm fairly quick to challenge any dismissal of the seriousness of what seemed to me to be something of a crisis in the writing of history in all of the cases of fraud, plagiarism, deception, etc., that appeared in 2002.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/18/2004


I just followed the link over to the Bellesiles forum... Ohmigod, two years of thrashing comments? No, I didn't read them, I've gotten quite enough of it when it spills over onto our boards. I just didn't realize that it had what amounts to a blog all it's own, the Bellesiles Studies Association transcripts....


That said, I still don't think it makes sense to chide someone for not knowing the name of a single troublesome historian, when there are so many good ones, and so many more troubling ones: serial plagiarists and archeological frauds and "theorists"....

David Lion Salmanson - 7/16/2004

When my advisor won the Bancroft, she came back from the dinner and trip to NYC and mentioned that there was another recepient. "Some guy who wrote a book about guns," she said.