Cover image for Past imperfect : facts, fictions, fraud-- American history from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin
Past imperfect : facts, fictions, fraud-- American history from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin
Hoffer, Peter Charles, 1944-
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : PublicAffairs, [2004]

Physical Description:
xiv, 287 pages ; 25 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
E175 .H54 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Woodrow Wilson, a practicing academic historian before he took to politics, defined the importance of history: "A nation which does not know what it was yesterday, does not know what it is today." He, like many men of his generation, wanted to impose a version of America's founding identity: it was a land of the free and a home of the brave. But not the braves. Or the slaves. Or the disenfranchised women. So the history of Wilson's generation omitted a significant proportion of the population in favor of a perspective that was predominantly white, male and Protestant.

That flaw would become a fissure and eventually a schism. A new history arose which, written in part by radicals and liberals, had little use for the noble and the heroic, and that rankled many who wanted a celebratory rather than a critical history. To this combustible mixture of elements was added the flame of public debate. History in the 1990s was a minefield of competing passions, political views and prejudices. It was dangerous ground, and, at the end of the decade, four of the nation's most respected and popular historians were almost destroyed by it: Michael Bellesiles, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen Ambrose and Joseph Ellis.

This is their story, set against the wider narrative of the writing of America's history. It may be, as Flaubert put it, that "Our ignorance of history makes us libel our own times." To which he could have added: falsify, plagiarize and politicize, because that's the other story of America's history.

Author Notes

Peter Charles Hoffer is professor of history at the University of Georgia.

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

An adviser to the American Historical Association on plagiarism, Hoffer focuses on the four most notorious recent cases of professional historical misconduct in this useful and reasonably argued study: Michael Bellesiles's manufacturing of data in Arming America; Joseph Ellis's fabrication of a fraudulent Vietnam-era past for himself; and the documented plagiarisms of Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose. In the case of Goodwin, historian Hoffer, of the University of Georgia, cites not only the much-written-about instances of copying in The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys but also the L.A. Times's investigative work showing that Goodwin plagiarized from books by Joseph Lash, Grace Tully (Franklin Roosevelt's secretary) and Hugh Gregory Gallagher when cobbling together her Pulitzer Prize-winning No Ordinary Time. With regard to Ambrose, Hoffer goes back to the historian's earliest works to document an apparently lifelong pattern of word theft. In the end, Hoffer sees the sins of Bellesiles (falsifying research data) and Ellis (lying to students and the press about his personal history) as in a different and smaller league. Hoffer examines these cases in the broader context of the professionalization of history, the battle between academic and popular history, and professional standards. Those concerned with the integrity and future of the field will find this analysis illuminating. Agent, Scott Waxman. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

As a member of the American Historical Association's professional division, Hoffer (history, Univ. of Georgia) is a historian's historian when it comes to helping out his craft. His is apparently the first book-length assessment of how four high-profile dishonesty cases-involving popular (but fully minted Ph.D.s) Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin and the very academic Michael Bellesiles and Joseph Ellis-have shaken American historiography in the last few years, and on that basis alone every academic library and many public libraries should own this work. But among its flaws is his generally penetrating survey of American historiography, which ignores European historiography-and, except for a dismissive reference to Carl Becker, American Europeanists-to establish a misimpression that multiculturalism, for instance, is almost exclusively a recent American intellectual phenomenon. His argument that consensus history gives would-be plagiarizers an excuse is contradicted by his lack of enthusiasm for Marxist influences in the writing of history. And the correlation between Ellis's creation of a personal past with a predilection to spin speculative narratives that exceed what the documentary record can confirm is flimsy. Recommended without qualification, but this is the start of a debate only.-Scott H. Silverman, Bryn Mawr Coll. Lib., PA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

In a contemporary application of Nietzsche that is both a blistering critique and a dire warning to practicing historians, Hoffer (Univ. of Georgia) effectively argues that the US past is being maliciously manipulated to suit prejudiced agendas. Academic historians have willingly contributed to this current trend by placing self-preservation above integrity and, as a result, the larger significance of history has been lost. Hoffer importantly calls to task historians who have allowed the profession of historian to surpass the duty of the historian. As past events and characters have been maneuvered to either support or disparage specific political policies or attitudes, professional historians have either willingly contributed to the problem or, worse still, stood by in neutral silence. This adage, Hoffer contends, has not only been at the heart of the bastardization of a once-noble profession, but is also responsible for works that border on popular fiction. Furthermore, plagiarism is rampant within academia due to institutional demands for historians to produce a quantity, rather than a quality, of work. A must for any serious student of history, this well-researched, well-argued, and well-written book lends itself to easy comprehension for both student and professor. ^BSumming Up: Essential. Upper-division undergraduates and above. M. J. C. Taylor Dickinson State University

Table of Contents

Prefacep. vii
Acknowledgmentsp. xiii
Introduction: Two-Faced Historyp. 1
Part I Facts and Fictionsp. 11
Chapter 1 The Rise of Consensus Historyp. 17
Chapter 2 Professions of Historyp. 32
Chapter 3 The New History and Its Promotersp. 62
Chapter 4 In the Eye of the Stormp. 93
Part II Fraudp. 131
Chapter 5 Falsification: The Case of Michael Bellesilesp. 141
Chapter 6 Plagiarism: The Cases of Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwinp. 172
Chapter 7 Fabrication: The Case of Joseph Ellisp. 208
Conclusion: The Future of the Pastp. 231
Notesp. 241
Indexp. 273