Can History be “Popular” ?

Stephen Ambrose was not yet cold.. in his grave and critics were vindictively trampling on it.  Once respected and beloved, Ambrose spent his final days  defending his legacy from merciless attacks.  What had he done to precipitate such a demise?  Ambrose had written history books  people liked.

Ambrose promoted remembrance

Plagiarism was the charge… and in academic circles it nearly amounts to a death sentence.  “Reporters” discovered instances in Ambrose’s  book The Wild Blue of passages that were “copied.”  He apologized, then clarified that he had not committed plagiarism, but had not cited the other book according to current academic standards.  Such a statement incited a witch hunt through his anthology for similarities with his source material.   Ambitious newshounds went as far as to dig through the deceased man’s doctoral thesis.  The ensuing maelstrom was a bizarre display of victimization of veterans, augmentation of little known authors, and academic lock step.  Only in the realm of academic history could peers admit to professional jealousy while openly advocating the ostracism of the envied.  No doubt some felt betrayed because Ambrose was one of them, trained at the University of Wisconsin-Madison under Professor William HesseltineThe attacks were too coordinated, the pressure too relentless for this to be merely writers promoting academic integrity.  Ambrose and the success he enjoyed had earned  the scorn of the multitudes of faceless academics who could only celebrate their publishing. 

Popular history is always bad?

Defining plagiarism is similar to explaining an IRS audit… everyone knows it’s bad, but only a few seem to fully comprehend it.  When explaining what Ambrose was accused of, his detractors usually clarify that he is guilty of “inadequate attribution.”  But, there is no doubt they say, this is plagiarism.  Ambrose presented history to the masses, not tiny conclaves of academics.  He found sources, utilized them, then cited them.  Inadequate attribution, essentially, is the proper use of quotation marks.  In academia they mean the world, to ordinary readers they mean “he/she said.”  The writers cited by Ambrose should be grateful; appearing in an Ambrose bibliography exposes their books to millions of readers they had no chance reaching on their own.  Should he have directly quoted the passages in question, hindsight says yes,  but his works remain on the bookshelves of millions of Americans.  His detractors have only the internet to thank for their continued notoriety.

Stephen Ambrose wrote history books… for people who did not study it in college.  His books were never intended to be the definitive studies on any particular topic.  He never claimed as much.  Ambrose told stories and people were drawn to them.  Now that he is gone, the close-knit world of academia is using him as a cautionary tale to new students of history.  Ambrose does not deserve such treatment considering his significant contribution to American historical study.

Hanks, Ambrose, Spielberg launch “Band of Brothers”

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Can History be “Popular” ?

  1. It seems that anything or anyone that tells the story of an America (or Americans) as being heroic, benevolent, good, or sacrificing, will stir the ire of academia.
    Bart

  2. I have run into people who seem to think a history book needs to be scholarly. I write history that I want people to read so I do my best to make it interesting and readable just like Ambrose did. I think a lot the complaints are just jealousy. They know their books can’t compare and so rather than try and write better, they try and tear down popular historians like Ambrose. Ambrose has the last laugh, though. His writing will continue to inform and educate more people and for far longer than the scholarly works that are held up as the standards to emulate.

  3. That’s the trick to be a good historian. To make it simple, not simpler. And it is true, popular historians tend to get severely criticised within academic circles. British historian Simon Schama is a good example of that..

  4. Pingback: Split personality reading | Books at Middlemay Farm

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