Rewriting the History Books; Ambitious Academics Invent Episodes of the past.(OPED)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 20, 2002 | Go to article overview

Rewriting the History Books; Ambitious Academics Invent Episodes of the past.(OPED)


Byline: Suzanne Fields, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

It's been a rough few years for historians. The higher the rung, the greater the fall. Plagiarism infected the works of superstar authors Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose. Both are prolific writers who fell prey to pressures of time, sloppy researchers, careless rewrites and history as big business, all of which interrupted their 20 minutes of academic celebrity.

More serious charges have been leveled against Michael Bellesiles, professor of history at Emory University, whose "Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture," published in 2000, was hailed as containing enough scholarly ammunition to shoot down the National Rifle Association. Columbia University gave it a prestigious prize. The New York Times graced it with the acclaim most historians only fantasize about. But when critics couldn't find the cited sources in the footnotes and other claims appeared to be unsubstantiated, the work failed to prove its sensational claims that few of the early American colonists owned firearms. Emory University is now investigating whether the author invented documents, which is even worse on the ethical scale of history-writing than offering someone else's words as your own. The National Rifle Association may be safe after all.

While these high-profile cases get magnified public attention, another kind of disease may be afflicting the study of history, and one harder to treat. In fact, you'll need the lens of a powerful microscope to get it into focus. Fortunately, the microscope is available. In its current issue, the New Criterion, a journal edited by Hilton Kramer that prides itself on exposing "intellectual mendacity," examines two different books with a lens that brings out the hidden pictures that contain falsehoods.

One of the volumes under its microscope is the "Encyclopedia of the American Left," published by Oxford University Press. It was selected by Choice and Library Journal as one of the 10 best reference books published in 1990. A second edition appeared in 1998. The other book under scrutiny is John Steinbeck's famous "Grapes of Wrath," about a displaced Oklahoma farming family confronting dust, death and destruction in America of the 1930s.

Paul Buhle, co-editor with his wife of the encyclopedia, is a popular professor of American civilization at Brown University. He's well-known for studying and sympathizing with American radicals as well as making brazen statements. He characterizes Harry Truman as "America's Stalin" and all our presidents in the second half of the 20th century as "jerks," with, naturally, Ronald Reagan, the "jerkiest of all. …

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