Academic journal article Journalism History

Past Imperfect Facts, Fictions, Fraud-American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin

Academic journal article Journalism History

Past Imperfect Facts, Fictions, Fraud-American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin

Article excerpt

Hoffer, Peter Charles. Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud-American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, andGoodwin. New York: Public Affairs Press, 2004.287 pp. $26.95.

I seldom label anything I review a "must read," but this book comes close. It draws media history scholars and graduate students into cross currents moving through the community of historians. They will be sobered at the loose enforcement of whatever pass as the rules of writing history and reminded of the need for honesty in what they do.

The author is a distinguished research professor in the University of Georgia history department (unfortunately, I have never met him, though his office is less than a football Geld away from the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication). His expertise is in early American history and the history of law. His service on the American Historical Association's professional division, charged with confidential investigation of ethical transgressions by historians, which has now been disbanded, apparently left him cynical about attempts to investigate and censure the ethical lapses in scholarly history.

His book, meanwhile, earned a frontpage review in the Washington Post and has brought the popular spotlight on rogue historians, controversy within the field of history, and the popular/scholarly historian split-among other topics. And, he was one of the final interviewees on Brian Lamb's CSpan Booknotes program (R.I.P.), presenting a forthright, understandable explanation of the book and the problems of the historical profession.

Another reviewer has, rightfully, arrived at the same conclusion as this one. In one sense, this is two books, somehow related but at the same time separate.

Part I: Facts and Fictions summarizes the history of historiography with its evolution from a rich man's enterprise to one done by both authors not resident in academe and those safe in an ivory tower covered with ivy-and tenured with a regular salary. This section brings us from colonial times to the stormy historical present, where public historians-those in charge of the Smithsonian's B-29 exhibits, for instance-run headlong into whirlwinds of debate over how to present the past to the American public. Sufficient to say the obvious, this is not always pretty, historians don't always agree with each other on interpretations of history, and everyone goes home grumbling. …

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