Fighting Consensus History

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.)  

No room for popularity

No room for popularity

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!

No frauds on television

No frauds on television


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.

Unite us, David

Unite us, David






Filed under Book Review, News

3 responses to “Fighting Consensus History

  1. Good old David–I even named the family in my novel after him. 🙂

  2. I think its important, when writing history, to provide clearly researched work, fully cited with notes, bib, and index…unless your writing pop non fiction and are not adding anything of substance to historiography. While the “new left” may take their “cause” to some extremes, so has the “new right,” with these seemingly out of place books on popular american heroes, newscasters pitching to marketing selves volumes of “history” via ghostwriter’s.

    • All this is true, but I’ve never considered Ambrose nor Goodwin true plagiarists. The hard line drawn by their critics has always appeared arbitrary to me.

      The fabrications in Bellesiles work have always been more disturbing than the omission of quotation marks.

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