Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Ambrose Files, Redux

Few historians have fallen farther in stature so quickly than Stephen Ambrose. The acclaimed author of Citizen Soldiers, Band of Brothers, a lucid three volume biography of Richard Nixon, and many of other works had been caught in 2002 plagiarizing passages in at least seven of his most popular books. (You can find an account of the controversy at the History News Network here.)

I first encountered Ambrose by reading Undaunted Courage, his vivid account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, while camped for a summer along the Milk River in Montana, near the explorers' original route. (In this book, it turned out Ambrose paraphrased only very loosely the prose of historian Dumas Malone.)

Tales of the episode ricocheted through the media. Quickly, though, the specific charge of plagiarism appeared to take a back seat to other, more ambiguous charges. Wendy Kaminer observed that Ambrose's success depended precisely on a kind of literary conformity in a commodified culture that gave readers the heroes they craved. And as Ron Robin notes in his history of recent episodes of academic misconduct, many historians appeared to see Ambrose's plagiarism as a product of his deeper sin of blurring the lines of scholarship and mass entertainment.

Now there are new charges.

Three weeks ago, Richard Rayner reported in the New Yorker that Ambrose's looseness with his sources reached far earlier into his career, and beyond the appropriation of others' prose and into the domain of apparent fabrications.

Ambrose's career and original fame had been built on his masterful and scholarly studies of Dwight Eisenhower. Yet as revealed by Rayner, not only was Ambrose’s oft told story of how he came to be Eisenhower’s first biographer false (he was not solicited by the former President as he claimed), but his statements that he interviewed Eisenhower for “hundreds and hundreds of hours” on a range of momentous subjects turned out to be fictions as well. Historians at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, while preparing a program on Ambrose’s works, had discovered that the retired Eisenhower's meticulously kept schedule book reveals that Ambrose met Eisenhower only three times, for a grand total of five hours.

Needless to say, these revelations only raise more questions. What kind of "deep-down resentment" could have driven such an accomplished figure to such literary crimes? wonders Garrison Keillor.

This is a fair question, but a letter published in this week's New Yorker raises what I think are more important ones, ones less about Ambrose and more about us, his readers (note: a subscription may be required).

Pete Wilson, the former California Senator and Governor, defends Ambrose against charges neither the author nor Eisenhower can speak to:

We may never know with absolute certainty the details of their interactions, for the period in question was more than forty years ago, and neither of these fine American is with us today. What we know is that Ambrose and President Eisenhower clearly had an important relationship, which included a number of meetings, substantive conversations, and a long correspondence.

Well, the evidence certainly suggests that Ambrose had an important relationship with Eisenhower; what's doubtful is whether the opposite was true.

But it's Wilson's conclusion that cuts to the heart of the issue:

And what truly matters is that Ambrose made the history of our country compelling. He illuminated the extraordinary war service and the Presidency of Dwight Eisenhower. He shone a bright light on the Second World War generation and gave these citizen-soldiers the opportunity to tell their stories. Ambrose’s legacy is his exceptional body of work, which will continue to engage, educate, and inspire.

Engage and inspire, most definitely. But educate is more complex. When Ambrose cites interviews that plainly didn't happen, what can we be sure we've learned? Wilson notes that he never met Eisenhower; he, like most of us, only knows him through the biographical and historical work of other scholars. If that work cannot be trusted, what have we learned? Is the purpose of historical writing -- even popular historical writing -- to elicit pride and shape a national identity? Or, to paraphrase a teacher of mine, is it to remember the things that society would prefer to forget? Can it do both?

Ambrose was never reticent about the purpose of his writing -- it was to tell a good story that brought his readers into the past. What's unclear now is how much of that past took place only in Ambrose's imagination.

For a fascinating account of the original Ambrose plagiarism controversy, along with other recent episodes of scholarly misconduct, see Ron Robin, Scandals & Scoundrels: Seven Cases that Shook the Academy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

For the origins of modern academic citation practices, see Anthony Grafton, The Footnote: A Curious History (Cambridge: Harvard, 1997).

1 comment:

  1. I wonder, what are the real-world consequences of embracing comforting myths versus acknowledging unpleasant truths?

    Humans have a lot of experience inventing myths to make themselves feel better about complex, uncertain, or dangerous situations. The search for objective "T"ruth is relatively modern, isn't it?

    Is there any evidence or way to compare societies who adhere to an "honest" view of their own history to those who embrace "mythical" versions of themselves?

    Does either approach influence the society's collective character or subconscious to promote more peace, happiness, or prosperity?