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Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin [Paperback]

Peter Charles Hoffer
3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)

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Book Description

July 3, 2007 1586484451 978-1586484453
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.

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Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin + The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"What emerges ... are ... [Hoffer's] love for his discipline and his grief for the losses it has sustained." -- Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 2004 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs (July 3, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1586484451
  • ISBN-13: 978-1586484453
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 5.5 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #241,081 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Can Historians Police Themselves? November 28, 2005
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Initially I thought this book, by the distinguished University of Georgia historian Peter Charles Hoffer, would be limited to examining cases of historian inappropriate conduct, including plagiarism, falsification of data, and outright fabrication. That he does, but the book is so much more. In order to establish the context for his discussion of recent misdeeds by some prominent historians, Hoffer essentially writes a substantial history of the how the concept of history has developed in this country--i.e., a history of historic writing.

Of course, the issue has always been relative to historical writing whether there are absolute truths, or whether interpretation and bias make it impossible to write value-free analytical history. Hoffer discusses several traditions which sets the stage for his later discussion: Consensus history (things are great); the new history (much more critical, especially as to the role of slavery, women and immigration); professions of history (which developed as the discipline became more professionalized (H.B. Adams and Johns Hopkins); Progressive history ala Charles Beard; and Cold War History (Daniel Boorstin's "The Americans" Trilogy). Along the way, the author also discusses the "National History Standards" and the American Historical Association's guidelines for professional conduct and its former "Professional Division" which enforced them.

Hoffer then moves on(in the second half of the book)to looking at some prominent recent cases where inappropriate conduct was alleged: Bellesiles' book on the extent of colonial gun ownership (alleged falsification); Doris Goodwin and Steven Ambrose (alleged plagiarism); and Joseph Ellis (alleged fabrication of his Vietnam background).
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26 of 32 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Thought provoking & nicely written November 15, 2004
Good overview of how historyhas been written since early 1900s, and where academic history is today. He pulls no punches when describing the misdeeds of Ambrose, Bellisles, Ellis, And Goodwin and their plagarism (and in the case of Bellisles, worse.) The description of academe today is depressing, though accurate--sad to say. One problem with the book is that (intentional or not) the author outlines the misdeeds of Ambrose, Bellisles, Ellis, And Goodwin and by using a guilt by association method, he implies that all non-academic/popular historians are suspect as far as method, accuracy, credentials, etc. The fact that Ambrose, Bellisles, Ellis, And Goodwin are/were ACADEMIC historians and university trained is a telling one: he offers no evidence of popular, non-academic historians plagarising and while the author hints that popular historians are only writing for celebrity reasons and telling people what they want to hear, he fails to offer the praise that David McCullough, Rick Atkinson, Jim McPherson, et al deserve for well-written books.
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21 of 27 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting read December 1, 2004
In some ways I prefer historiography to straight history (although I read the latter extensively), so when Past Imperfect appeared on Borders' "New Non-Fiction" table my fate was quickly sealed. Overall I enjoyed this book quite a bit. The first half in particular, where Hoffer provides an overview of American history writing from roughly the Revolution to the present, is excellent. Although I was quite familiar with the Enola Gay controversy, I discovered that I had missed the bulk of the debate over standards which occurred at roughly the same time. So I learned a lot and was entertained (Hoffer is an excellent writer). I would however, like to make a couple of observations.

1) Throughout Past Imperfect Hoffer places a great deal of emphasis on the idea that academic historians are "professionals", in contrast to the albeit skilled "amateurs" of earlier eras or creators of popular history today (Indeed, my impression is that he uses the word "professional" remarkably often). I have absolutely no dispute with the notion that historians are professionals. However, I would suggest that professionalism among historians is somewhat different than the case for say, doctors or lawyers, especially with respect to training. In their graduate programs, the latter are expected to master well defined bodies of material, whether it be human biology, legal statute, or whatever. Before they are accredited, they have to pass rigorous, standardized tests, for example, lawyers have to pass the bar exam. One might well expect to take a doctor or lawyer right out of school, and be reasonably assured that there would be a high degree of agreement across the recently mastered body of knowledge

By contrast, the training of historians is far more idiosyncratic.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
In an effort to provide a history of historical writing, Peter Hoffer has taken an unusual approach - looking at scandals that have plagued historical scholarship in the very recent past, but comparing that against the earliest histories of our nation.

Hoffer gives the reader a good, strong understanding of the different schools of historiography (i.e. consensus history, neo-consensus, and "new" history). He then explains how the "new" history led to a rise in popular history and the conversion of four academics into the realm of popular history, which nearly destroyed all of them.

The cases of Stephen Ambrose, Michael Bellesiles, Joseph Ellis, and Doris Kearns-Goodwin all share one thing in common - they are associated with a lack of careful historical scholarship and, in some cases, outright fraud. Hoffer provides the reader with an insightful look at the sins committed by these four historians and explains why the transgressions were so significant, even if the errors made by the historian were in the classroom and not in the written text.

This is a valuable book, and one that all students of history should read. It is enjoyable and teaches us valuable lessons about how a failure to be careful can spell disaster or doom for a historians' career.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars an effective text a viewpointy
Well written but too tidy and too short. Would like to have seen more details about early 20th century viewpoints.
Published 4 months ago by Sean Patrick Innocent Dineen
3.0 out of 5 stars A decent book
Three-and-a-half stars.

A decent book, though it is sort of lopsided against the old school. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Gene Rhea Tucker
4.0 out of 5 stars The shifting sands of historical fads and fashions
Past Imperfect is a remarkable book. It contains both an extensive commentary on recent instances of fabrication, plagiarism, and falsification by professional historians and a... Read more
Published on June 1, 2009 by Crazy Horse
4.0 out of 5 stars 139 pages are wasted
This should have been 2 books: pages 1-139 and the rest. The descriptions of the misdeeds of the four malefactors, Bellesiles, Ambrose, Goodwin, and Ellis, don't come in detail... Read more
Published on April 17, 2009 by Dick Marti
4.0 out of 5 stars Pretty dry, but good
I would only recommend this book to people who a really interested in not just history, but the profession of historian. Read more
Published on September 26, 2005 by Dan
5.0 out of 5 stars Great transaction!
Great transaction - the book was in excellent shape and sent in a timely manner. Seller is highly recommended!
Published on September 5, 2005 by CrazyGradStudent
3.0 out of 5 stars Benny Smith Is Dead Wrong
Regarding the Bellesiles affair: The Yale Law Review, The William and Mary Quarterly, Columbia University and countless other reputable sources have destroyed Bellesiles' claims. Read more
Published on April 20, 2005 by Harkin Banks
3.0 out of 5 stars Re-writing History for Today's Readers.
A professor of historical writing at the University of Georgia at Athens, the author of several books of academic history, wrote this book for non-historians. Read more
Published on March 23, 2005 by Betty Burks
2.0 out of 5 stars A Curious Account
Peter Chalers Hoffer announces in the preface that he will spend the second half of his book discussing the misconduct of four renowned historians (Michael Bellesiles, Joseph... Read more
Published on November 30, 2004 by Anonymous
1.0 out of 5 stars Haven't we had enough witch hunts?
From his previous books covering the Salem witch trials, one would assume that Peter Charles Hoffer would know a witch hunt when he saw one. Alas, he fails. Read more
Published on November 18, 2004 by Benny Smith
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