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The Year When We Got Caught

Frankly, it’s been a dreadful year for historians -- the year when we got caught. It wasn’t the year when we first erred. Like Trent Lott, we had been doing it for years. It wasn’t even as though anything we did was unprecedented. All of us who were tagged in 2002 were benched for doing, writing, or saying things we’d seen others do, sometimes much better than we did. Yet, more of us seemed to get caught doing them -- some of us rather spectacularly -- than at any time in recent memory.

The year began with a hangover from 2001 when one of us was called to account for pretending to be something that he was not. For whatever reason, Joseph Ellis led his students to believe that he had seen active combat duty in the Viet Nam War, when he had not. One can imagine how the effort to engage students’ attention by a dramatic classroom performance might hold the seeds of an affected persona. It is harder to imagine why one would allow the pretense to build and grow over a long and distinguished academic career. For his offense, some of Ellis’s academic colleagues said he should be barred from the classroom for life. He was suspended for a year, but surely there are better examples of charlatans and fakers in the professorate than Joe Ellis could ever pretend to be.

The Ellis "scandal" reminds me of Will Herberg, the greatest teacher I’ve ever known. Herberg had an encyclopedic mind and was always ready to slug it out with all intellectual challengers. Yet, his academic credentials were wholly fabricated and he lied repeatedly about his age so he would not be forced to retire. In his last years, Herberg carried in his jacket a clipping of Confucius's epitaph: "He is this sort of man: so intent upon teaching those eager for knowledge that he forgets to eat, so happy in doing so that he forgets his sorrows and does not realize that old age is creeping up on him." (Lun Yu, Analects 7/18) I don’t recommend that candidates for academic positions misrepresent themselves, but may the tribe of devoted teachers increase!

Some historians will recall 2002 as the year of the plagiarist. Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Louis Roberts were accused of using other people’s words without properly citing their source or sources. Roberts has stepped down as chair of the classics department at SUNY, Albany. Because they did not hold academic positions at scandal time, Ambrose and Kearns Goodwin did not face similar consequences. Ambrose has subsequently died and Kearns Goodwin struggles to re-establish her public reputation. Their editors at Simon and Schuster have kept Ambrose’s books in print, paid damages in a settlement of earlier charges against one of Kearns Goodwin’s books and will publish a corrected edition of it this spring.

Historians who seize a popular market can survive without academic positions. They face enormous pressure and temptation, however, to produce at a rate which may undermine their commitment to usual expectations of recognizing the property rights of others. Among recently popular American historians, Alex Haley’s is the most egregious example. His Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976) appeared to great fanfare at the bicentennial. An historical novel, which invited acceptance as history, it is the story of Haley’s family origins in West Africa, its experience in slavery and its subsequent history. Like books by Ambrose and Kearns Goodwin, it was a Pulitzer Prize-winning best seller. Roots had even greater impact as a gripping television miniseries. Broadcast in January and February 1977 by ABC television, it claimed an audience of 130,000,000 people and stimulated enormous interest in African American history. In 1977, however, Margaret Walker sued Haley for plagiarism from her novel, Jubilee. Her case was dismissed. Subsequently, however, he settled out of court for $650,000 with novelist Harold Courlander, who alleged that passages in Roots were taken from Courlander’s The African. By 1981, professional historians were challenging its genealogical and historical reliability. Haley admitted that Roots was a combination of fact and fiction. A third law suit for plagiarism was filed in 1989 by Emma Lee Davis Paul. For a popular audience, the symbolic significance of Roots's linkage of the African American experience to African origins is still important and Doubleday keeps the book in print.

If it isn’t the year of the plagiarist, it is the year Bellesiles. As late as a year ago, I suspect, most professional historians were ready to circle the wagons to defend civilized scholarship against the onslaught of gun-hugging barbarians. It turned out otherwise. The gun huggers basically had the evidence on their side and the barbarian was one of us. Let this be said in his defense: so far as I know, Michael Bellesiles is innocent of plagiarism. Fabrication of sources and misinterpretation of evidence, however, are serious matters and seem by now adequately documented. Bellesiles has received the most serious consequences of all the historians touched by scandal this year: he lost a tenured professorship. Sponsors of the Bancroft Prize created precedent to revoke the award to Arming America. Those who award Pulitzer Prizes have not followed that example in the cases of Ambrose, Haley, or Kearns Goodwin.

The case of Stanley Walter Poulshock is cited as the most likely precedent for the scale of Bellesiles’s offenses. Poulshock’s dissertation appeared as a book, The Two Parties and the Tariff in the 1880s, by Syracuse University Press in 1965. Subsequently, a fellow historian, Jerome Sternstein, discovered that Poulshock had fabricated much of his evidence and misinterpreted some of the remainder. All of the deception was crafted to support the author’s thesis and Poulshock resigned from his academic position. The comparison breaks down there, however. There was no great public controversy about the matter, the book had won no widespread recognition and its publisher quietly withdrew it from the market. Today, it is found on the shelves of about 100 libraries across the country. You can buy a fine, first edition copy of it, however, for $50 from a used book dealer in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

If the dividing line on revoking prizes pits the Bancroft precedent against the Pulitzer examples, the dividing line on withdrawing books from publication seems to fall along the academic press/commercial press fault line. Except for Simon and Schuster’s promise to withdraw a flawed edition of Kearns Goodwin’s The Fitzgeraldsand the Kennedys and publish a corrected edition, Doubleday and Simon and Schuster have stood by their authors, regardless of all charges against them. By contrast, Syracuse University Press withdrew Poulshock’s book in the 1960s and the University of North Carolina Press recently withdrew Edward A. Pearson’s flawed Designs Against Charleston. If that dividing line holds, the fate of Bellesiles’s and Alfred A. Knopf’s Arming America will be determined by the market.

It’s been a dreadful year for historians, individually and collectively. Press accounts of the Brooklyn College history department’s denial of tenure to Robert "KC" Johnson present powerful evidence that the place is a snake pit. Fortunately, 2003 is just around the corner. Anticipating it, here are some New Year’s Resolutions for historians:

... I will not pretend to be someone other than who I am.

... I will not use other people’s language or ideas without proper attribution.

... I will not fabricate or misinterpret evidence, no matter how intriguing my thesis is.

... Even when my colleagues are hissing and biting, I will try to be less of a snake.