Historiography is back in the news

Crimes against history are publishing news this season (tip of the hat to History News Network).

The Ambrose, Goodwin et al cases will be revisited in an October release, Scandals and Scoundrels: Seven Cases That Shook the Academy. It's by a history professor who

... makes the case that, contrary to popular imagery, we're not living in particularly deviant times and there is no fundamental flaw permeating a decadent academy. Instead, Robin argues, latter-day scandals are media events, tailored for the melodramatic and sensationalist formats of mass mediation. In addition, the contentious and uninhibited nature of cyberdebates fosters acrimonious exposure.

It's just a media circus. People doing their job are suddenly whacked with acrimonious exposure.

Off in Australia, the big story in histoiography over the last 18 months has been a new book that focuses on sloppy, ideologically motivated aboriginal studies by establishment historians. "How could anyone survive when the mass media was in on the [debunking] conspiracy?" was discussed at a recent historians' conference in Newcastle.

Another October release looks fairly interesting: Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Frauds - American History From Bancroft And Parkman To Ambrose, Bellisles, Ellis, and Goodwin. The publisher's description suggests that some history writers are victims of "the broader context of the professionalization of history, the battle between academic and popular history, and professional standards."

Author Peter Hoffer is "a member of the American Historical Association's professional division, which audits the standards of academic historians' work." That should set off sirens and lights. The AHA is not only the pop history haven founded by Allan Nevins as a reaction to "dry-as-dust-history," it was also home to disgraced pop mega-star Goodwin.

Let me be crude: in a professional body dedicated to popularizing historical nonfiction, the standards are not going to be that high. I speak as an experienced reader of good books. If you wave your position on an AHA standards body as a credential to comment on the misdeeds of your dear AHA colleagues, allow me a laugh or two.

Professor Richard Jensen looked at the AHA's guidelines on plagiarism and found that Ambrose had not violated even one of Peter Hoffer's standards. This points to a standards deficit, whether Jensen is correct or not.

Meanwhile, it appears that Hoffer is not vetting the press releases of the AHA's president James McPherson. Here is his recent intemperate, almost blog-like outburst against Bush and Rice for using the term "revisionist historian" publicly in a caustic manner. The tone of the piece is partisan, defensive and completely unworthy of a professional society of historians.

But that tone is one we saw at AHA during the Goodwin/Ambrose flap; it's eating up the Australian HA; and it makes me suspicious of two books on a topic necessary and timely.