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
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
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
Toll, Ian, Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the US Navy, Norton Publishing, New York, 2007- ISBN 978-0-393-05847-5
Ian Toll has written that rare book… that provides a fresh look at a little studied historical period, while remaining true to research pioneers in the field. Other studies, like Teddy Roosevelt’s Naval War of 1812, have examined the history of the fledgling US Navy, but Toll’s work fills the obvious gaps in historiography. Writers such as Roosevelt, Christopher McKee, Henry Adams, and even CS Forester have all studied the characters, battles, and politics of the Age of Sail, Toll’s book serves as an authoritative compendium to the previous histories.
“Joshua Humphreys proposed, in short, to build exceptionally large, heavily armed, fast-sailing frigates…” Toll is at his best when describing the intrigue surrounding the formation and construction of our first fleet. The same radicalism that had separated us from European monarchy and aristocracy was driving our chief shipwright to challenge ship building norms. America’s first warships were going to be exceptional- Humphreys is Toll’s unlikely hero. Just as America was designed to be unconventional, so would our Navy. Politics proved ruinous from the start, and Toll does the research required to show how second-guessing and patronage nearly ruined Humphreys’ exceptional fleet. On far too many occasions, the young US government allowed partisanship to risk our national security interests- Toll’s analysis fits into debate over current events as well.
Toll’s ability to focus his writing… on the original six frigates shows commendable restraint and prevents this study from deteriorating into muddled mass of dates, places, and names. Utilizing prior studies, Toll’s historical recounting of the Golden Age of Sail is both gripping and realistic. The narrative effortlessly guides the reader from the Quasi-War in the Caribbean to the Barbary Wars in the Mediterranean. Stephen Decatur and John Rodgers figure prominently in Toll’s story, but so do oft overlooked figures like Edward Preble, William Bainbridge, and Jesse Eliot. The founding of the American Navy was a difficult and sometimes bloody affair- Toll astutely points out how dueling nearly brought the officer corps of the Navy to it’s knees by the mid-19th century. And this is the essence of Ian Toll’s study– more than just battles and larger than life heroes– founding the US Navy was about blood, sweat, and good strong oak.
The Nantucket whaling ship, Essex … was attacked by an 85 foot bull sperm whale, November 20, 1820. Two of the three whaleboats were off on Nantucket sleighrides (being pulled by harpooned whales.) A damaged third boat was aboard being repaired by First-Mate Owen Chase. Crewman made Chase aware of the enormous whale circling the ship. The bull rammed the ship along the starboard bow and smacked the length of the vessel with its powerful tail. Chase hesitated with his harpoon in fear of losing the rudder. The whale circled to the bow again and accelerated like Chase had never seen:
“I turned around and saw him about one hundred rods (550 yards) directly ahead of us, coming down with twice his ordinary speed, and it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect. The surf flew in all directions about him with the continual violent thrashing of his tail. His head about half out of the water, and in that way he came upon us, and again struck the ship.”
Actual crew sketch of the final moments
The Essex sank quickly 3,000 miles from the coast of South America and 1,200 miles from the nearest group of islands. Fear of cannibals forced the three small boats to build makeshift sails and make for South America. A majority of the crewmen were at sea for 95 days. Seven members were consumed after their deaths. All of the survivors eventually went back to sea. Their exploits became legend in the Nantucket whaling community- passed down through the years- eventually to part-time sailor, Herman Melville. Literature students have regretted this day since……
Call me Owen Chase
Thomas Jefferson: The Author of America… by Christopher Hitchens, Harper Collins, New York, 2006.
It is awfully difficult to review a scholarly… work by a wordsmith as eminent as Mr. Hitchens. Rarely is prose this well crafted, little criticism can be levied against it from a grammatical or stylistic perception. This thin volume on Jefferson is forthright and at times cogent. Hitchens admires his subject, and leaves little doubt as to the book’s intent. The criticism lies in his interpretation of Jefferson- the scholarship is questionable at key points, diluting the effectiveness of his arguments.
During the book tour… Hitchens proclaimed his Founding Father biography “came complete with genitals.” The implication was that his study would not cast Jefferson in marble, but show all of his faults, even his alleged dalliance with Sally Hemings. An odd inclusion considering the author’s intention of explaining how Jefferson “authored” America. But even the most talented writers seem unable to resist the perverse pleasure of speculating on the romantic entanglements of a man who went to extraordinary lengths to conceal his. Hitchens believes the two facets are inseparable, but his book never explains why.
Hitchens desperately wants Jefferson to be an atheist… in fact, Jefferson’s perceived antagonism to organized religion is what prompted Harper Collins’ invitation to write this volume. Hitchens discovers what many atheists and agnostics have learned- that Jefferson did have religious beliefs-albeit, not traditional Christianity. Not deterred, Hitchens rues, “As to whether he was an atheist, we must reserve judgment.”
Author of America
Beyond these critical points, Hitchens produces a… repetitively modern biography of Jefferson- complex, frustrating, flawed-yet essential. The world lost one of its great writers in 2011 when Hitchens passed. When the younger generation looks to discover his work, this undistinguished effort should be excused.
At the heart of historical revisionism is distrust… a lack of faith in previous interpretations of the historical record. This blog has bitterly observed the crass consumerism and intellectual vanity that often drive outlandish revisions in our history. But, a closer examination reveals the true divide between revisionist and traditionalist- trust.
Maybe there’s hope
As historians rush to laud Alan Taylor’s new revision… of the American Revolutionary movement, the distrust is laid bare. If revisionist historians refuse to come out and proclaim all previous work wrong, then there must be a lack of trust. Was Gordon Wood trying to deceive us when explaining how radical our Revolution was? Did Dumas Malone wish to hide Jefferson’s feelings on slavery and freedom? Was Edmund Morgan deliberately distorting history when explaining racial diversity in Colonial Virginia? All revisionists will say is that works like Taylor’s are now “the standards.” To hell with what came before…
Unite us, David
There is no mass historical conspiracy to disregard… races or classes of people. Gordon Wood should be read in first year graduate courses and beyond. In their zeal to legitimize controversial interpretations, revisionists like Taylor and Annette Gordon-Reed propagate the distrust of these noteworthy predecessors.
As long as young adults seek ways to… “discover themselves” and anger their parents- there will be audience for Howard Zinn’s A People’s History. Parental units are part of the so-called establishment and our farthest reaching right-of-passage in America is fighting the conformity of the “the man.” The biggest error in judgment these young rebels make is seeing the establishment as encompassing every facet of our existence- even our history…. Zinn is where too many young minds are exposed to distorted, often lazy examinations of these crucial moments.
The failure to see our Founders as truly revolutionary… is the most damaging element in Howard Zinn’s rambling. That’s what A People’s History is really, unsubstantiated neo-Marxist rambling. Europeans were murdering oppressors driven by greed; Natives were peaceful environmentalists seeking harmony with nature. The Founding of America was perpetrated by an elite few looking for a more efficient way to accrue wealth. To Zinn and his readers this is all very provocative, but when placed under the scrutiny of peer review it is amateurish.
Maybe there’s hope
Zinn’s work fails on many levels… but contextually he refuses to surrender bias to the complexities of human interaction. The Pequot war was not as simple as “Red Man Good, White Man Bad.” Our Founders were not only motivated by greed- trying explaining that to Robert Morris. To impressionable undergrads, these arguments are their first bites from the apple of nonconformity. To the middling academics who refuse to take Zinn to task, the book is an opportunity to gain some anti-establishment credibility with the youngsters.
Who needs sources? I’ve got Jason Bourne!
The New York Times boldly proclaimed Howard Zinn’s…. A People’s History should be required reading for all college students. Professors and high school teachers alike have responded by making Zinn’s screed one of the top ten requested academic books. The only justification can be found in celebrity endorsement and the book’s adherence to politically correct platitudes about our past. Zinn egregiously claims:
- Maoist China was “the closest thing, in the long history of that ancient country, to a people’s government, independent of outside control.”
- Castro and his executioner Che Guevara “had no bloody record of suppression.”
- American actions following 9/11 were morally equivalent to the terror attack “It seemed that the United States was reacting to the horrors perpetrated by the terrorists against innocent people in New York by killing other innocent people in Afghanistan.”
- America’s very founding was a fraud “They found that by creating a nation, a symbol, a legal unity called the United States, they could take over land, profits, and political power from the favorites of the British Empire. In the process, they could hold back a number of potential rebellions and create a consensus of popular support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership.”
- World War II was never about ridding the world of German Fascism or Japanese Militarism- the war was America’s fault!
“Was it the logical policy of a government whose main interest was not stopping Fascism but advancing the imperial interests of the United States? For those interests, in the thirties, an anti-Soviet policy seemed best. Later, when Japan and Germany threatened U.S. world interests, a pro-Soviet, anti-Nazi policy became preferable.”
Where’s the research? Where’s the scholarship? Where’s the objectivity?
Zinn himself, said it best,
“I wanted my writing of history and my teaching of history to be a part of social struggle”