Peter Charles Hoffer sees nothing worse… than “consensus” historians selling millions of books. In his book, Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Frauds – American History From Bancroft And Parkman To Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, And Goodwin, Hoffer rails against the scholarly sins of popular historical writers Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Mistakes in citation now pass for pure plagiarism in academic circles, and Hoffer revels in tearing down the reputations of popular writers more familiar to the American public. He relentlessly assails Goodwin’s defense of her mistakes(she and Ambrose both claimed simple oversight due to volume of writing) – his attacks on Ambrose ring hollow considering the confrontation was posthumous(Ambrose died in 2002.)
At the heart of Hoffer’s book is a struggle… for the spirit of American history. “Consensus history,” as it was labeled in the 1960’s, was the study of dead white men and their battles– exemplified by George Bancroft and Francis Parkman. Through their glorification of nationalistic images, America’s true history(usually class struggle) is lost. Hoffer judges his forebears “falsified and fabricated by omission and commission, and substituted opinion for scholarship” and equates it to the perceived wrongdoings of current popular history. As a former member of the American Historical Association’s Professional division, Hoffer wants to know why these “frauds” were not punished more harshly. Kearns-Goodwin is again a television pundit, Joe Ellis still writes bestsellers, and Ambrose, well, he’s dead- no fair!
By the end of his book… Hoffer’s analysis borders on the absurd. He praises the sensationalism(some outlets likened it to a scandal of Nixonian proportion) of the media for ruining the reputations of the writers in question. The book poses the disturbing proposition- history is either going to be popular and unscholarly or erudite and inaccessible. The works of Nathaniel Philbrick, David McCullough, and Evan Thomas have shown just the opposite. Hoffer’s simplistic attempt to banish popular historians from academic ranks exposes a weakening grip the New Left has on American historiography.