Friday, April 30, 2010

Blog XLVIII (48): Stephen Ambrose and the Burden of History

The New Yorker magazine has an interesting story in its current issue about the late historian Stephen Ambrose that is devastating to the man’s professional reputation. The story should give all of us a pause and show the danger in sacrificing professional norms in favor of going popular.

First, I should note, I liked Ambrose’s work from the moment I encountered it as an undergraduate. His book Rise to Globalism played a role in my decision to become a diplomatic historian. His biography of Richard Nixon also led me into working on Nixon, and for a long time it was the best book on the Milhous man.

Second, I think that a historian can write good history that pushes the historiography along and sells well among the public. Granted that is a lot easier to say than do, but I believe it is possible. It requires that the historian work at honing their writing skills—something that is not taught in all but a very few graduate programs.

Now, on to Ambrose who made his name as a military historian of the Second World War. He started his career as a Civil War historian, but—so the story goes—he got a phone one day from Dwight D. Eisenhower himself. The former president had just read his biography of Henry Halleck, a Civil War general, and asked Ambrose to join a group editing his wartime papers. From that conversation, the focus of Ambrose’s career changed. He pegged his career to that of Eisenhower. Roughly half of the books he wrote had something to do with Eisenhower and the European Theater of Operations in World War II.

Ambrose did good and important work. He was an associate editor of The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower, and was one of the founding members of the Eisenhower revisionists; group of historians that argued that the popular image of Eisenhower in the White House as a clueless buffoon was almost 180 degrees opposite of what actually happened. Ike was in control and had people in his administration serve as lightening rods to deflect criticism from him personally. This work culminated in the early 1980s with a two-volume biography of Eisenhower. In the late 1980s, Ambrose wrote a sympathetic three-volume biography of Nixon, which was a surprise to the author, given his own politics.

His books always sold well above the average for academics—he was getting reviewed in The New York Times, but he became a phenomenal best-seller in the 1990s with the fiftieth anniversary of World War II. He established an impressive museum in New Orleans that focused on World War II. He was a “consultant” for the film Saving Private Ryan—he was hired only after shooting on the set ended—but director Steven Spielberg helped turn the historian's book, Band of Brothers into a successful mini-series on HBO. Ambrose collected oral histories of the common soldier that are now available at the Eisenhower Center located on the campus of the University of New Orleans. He gave a good deal of money to the University of Wisconsin to establish an endowed chair in military history.

His status as Ike's Boswell was a major asset in his career. Historians wanted to believe Ambrose, wanted to believe that Eisenhower cared about history. Ike did; he pushed for the creation of the official U.S. Army histories of World War II. Ambrose said, he conducted oral history interviews with the former President and he often cited them in his books. It gave his scholarship real credibility.

Ambrose got in a lot of trouble towards the end of his life with issues involving plagiarism. He often used the same words as another author, but with a new verb or noun here and there. As a result, he would not use quote marks, but he would cite the material with a footnote. He dismissed the controversy, saying he was a storyteller and was not interested in arguing about documents. That response might work for an 18-year old undergraduate who does not understand proper citation forms, but for a professional historian in his sixties it was a limp response. I banned him from my syllabus. I am sure he never noticed. His sale remained good and died a few months later, so he had other more important concerns on his mind.

Now, TheNew Yorker reports that in preparation for a display at the Eisenhower Presidential Library, staff at that institution found a letter dated September 10, 1964 after Ambrose had joined The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower team from Ambrose to the former President, in which he introduced himself: “For the past six weeks I have been reading your World War II correspondence and feel I am getting to know you intimately; therefore I think it only fair that you have the opportunity to see some of my writing.” He enclosed two books, including the biography of Halleck that Ambrose said resulted in Ike’s phone call.

So much for that story.

In fact, over the years, the story changed. Ambrose said Eisenhower asked him to take up writing his biography. Turns out the truth was a little different. On October 15th, Ambrose wrote Eisenhower again. “It therefore seems to me that the time has come to begin the scholarly biographies of the leaders of World War II,” he stated. “I would like to begin a full scale, scholarly account of your military career.”

Ambrose, at various times, claimed he spoke with Ike for “hundreds and hundreds of hours.” That is in itself difficult to believe. For good reason. The footnotes to Ambrose’s book, The Supreme Commander, cite nine different interviews with dates. Turns out that seven of these citations conflict with the president’s daily schedule. Ike was nowhere near Ambrose on those occasions.

Ambrose used these “Eisenhower interviews” in other books. With time the footnotes became more and more vague, while the number of subjects the two supposedly discussed expanded.

What are we to make of all this? Well, Ambrose basically made stuff up. A reasonable question to ask is how important was this fictional evidence to his accounts? Maybe not that much, but how can we be sure? Ambrose cut corners with his citations and when he could not find the facts he wanted, he made it up as he went along. What other crimes against accuracy did he commit?

Writing well in history is difficult. Ambrose always said he was a storyteller first and foremost. Okay, fine. History serves that function, but truth and factual accuracy have to be the foundation of historical writing…even popular history. It might be a burden, but the people buying books of popular history want real stories, not fiction. There are other sections in the book store for novels. Ambrose mislead his readers--intentionally--and for that there is no excuse. None whatsoever.

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