David Skinner: Review of Peter Charles Hoffer's Past Imperfect
[David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.]
PETER CHARLES HOFFER begins his book about the crisis in the history profession with the four most famous words in all of fiction: "Once upon a time." But instead of princes and witches, the reader gets an ironic story about the magical time when "history meant everything to Americans, and historians were revered and trusted. For everyone knew that history's lessons were immutable and inescapable."
Hoffer's point is this: Even before the postmodernists came along and cast all of history into the darkness of relativism, the facts still weren't all they were cracked up to be. The old historians, back in the nineteenth century and even in the early twentieth century, Hoffer shows, didn't treat primary sources with great care. Better raconteurs than curators, such major American scholars of the nineteenth century as Francis Parkman and George Bancroft made big, satisfying stories from history's incomplete and not-always-ennobling record.
They made America look good, Hoffer argues in Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud--American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin, but at the expense of (you guessed it) women and minorities. These poor folks were excluded from the heroic story of our country. Up until the 1950s, historians emphasized progress and national unity, while bypassing events and institutions that would, if looked at fairly, call into question the American people's equal take of the freedoms that set our great nation
Now, Hoffer's account may sound like some rote, first-day-of-class lecture--but it is in fact the setup he's chosen for an examination of the plagiarism and falsification scandals that have stirred up his profession. An outsider might think that the recent scandals involving Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Joseph Ellis, and Michael Bellesiles concern merely those writers' personal wrongdoing. Whatever the shortcomings of the historical profession--not paying enough attention to women and minorities in the old days, say, or paying them too much attention these days--surely that is a separate matter from whether Doris Kearns Goodwin's The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys lifted copy from Lynne McTaggart's earlier Kathleen Kennedy: Her Life and Times.
Not so, according to Hoffer, who believes the recent crop of scandals is, like everything else in American history these days, indeed, about women and minorities. Hoffer believes that for us to understand the scandals properly, we must travel the long road connecting early pro-American "consensus" historians to the radical anti-American historians of the 1960s. In this, he increases the divide between academic historians and readers of popular history, even as he intends to close it. With Hoffer spending 139 out of 240 pages on the history of writing history, his book actually proves that what interests historians is not what interests non-historians about the past.
The most relevant part of this extended prelude concerns the new historians who began climbing the ranks in the mid-1960s--Hoffer included. They were defined by two ambitions: to call into question American history as it was handed down to them, and to live out their New Left convictions as professional academics. These historians, says Hoffer, "discerned an essential relationship between the writing of history and current events." Sometimes current events took precedence over history writing, as when the radical historian Jesse Lemisch feuded with fellow radical Eugene Genovese over whether to use the 1969 convention of the American Historical Association to protest American involvement in Vietnam. Sticking to his guns all these years later, Lemisch told an audience at Columbia University in April 2002 that "activist experience gives the historian experiential understanding of the power of the state...and the depth of commitment of those with power to maintaining the standing order." And not only that: "A good dose of tear gas makes us think more clearly as historians."
STILL, this analysis from Past Imperfect helps elucidate at least one of the scandals: that of Michael Bellesiles, the former Emory University professor caught falsifying research on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century probate records in Arming America, his book on gun ownership in the antebellum United States. "A second-generation new historian," in Hoffer's genealogy, Bellesiles wore his political sympathies on his sleeve. Later, when his groundbreaking research was found seriously wanting in credibility, Bellesiles briefly pretended that this was all a mix-up, because, really, he liked guns and was an outdoorsman himself. But in the book's introduction, he openly sneered at Charlton Heston and the NRA. Indeed, if Bellesiles had proved what he claimed in Arming America--that guns were not commonplace in early America--then the historical-context part of the Second Amendment debate would have undergone a major shift in favor of the gun-control crowd.
His friendly reviewers understood all this very clearly--reading the book, as one reviewer put it, as a "brief against the myths that align freedom with the gun." Conversely, if the book hadn't so clear an agenda, it would never have received the scrutiny that exposed its faulty foundation. The dual burdens of the new historians--to discover the truth about the past and fight for justice in the present--may be too heavy for the profession's own good.
This conclusion, however, is not one that Hoffer draws in Past Imperfect. Hoffer is on the whole too sensitive and too much a man of the ivory tower to dismiss or salvage the case
for an activist professoriate. He thinks calling someone's argument "convenient" or "predictable" a devastating blow.
Meanwhile he treats his colleagues with kid gloves. Discussing acknowledged socialists and other radicals among the new historians, he refers to their politics as belonging to the "so-called New Left," as if he can't let the phrase pass without saluting his own unstated reservations about the newness or leftness of the New Left.
THE INTELLECTUAL THEFT of Goodwin and Ambrose, and the false boasting of Joseph Ellis, are--by comparison with the case of Bellesiles--just glory-seeking done on the cheap. Such lies of the rich and famous are, actually, irrelevant to any discussion of the history profession per se. Hoffer makes good on his professional training with a fairly expert sorting of evidence. But his thesis that all of these cases are the byproduct of an ongoing dialectical correction between the old historians and the new becomes less convincing as the book moves along.
Rather, it begins to seem only the ideology of the new historians deserves to be implicated in the recent scandals. We can imagine a consensus history that doesn't ignore women or minorities, and yet finds in the Civil War, suffrage, the Second World War, the civil-rights movement, and the Cold War an ongoing narrative of freedom that unites us all in a great national story. But if all you're doing as a historian is picking fights with the NRA, you're likely to miss it.
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