Thursday, May 20, 2010

But Did You Actually Read The Book?

I wrote about historian Michael Bellesiles a few days ago here. Now he has a new book, 1877: America's Year Of Living Violently, and a new publisher, New Press. Preview copies of the book have been sent to reviewers, accompanied by a press release which states:

A major new work of popular history, 1877 is also notable as the comeback book for a celebrated U.S. historian. Michael Bellesiles is perhaps most famous as the target of an infamous ‘swiftboating’ campaign by the National Rifle Association, following the publication of his Bancroft Prize-winning book Arming America (Knopf, 2000) -- ‘the best kind of non-fiction,’ according to the Chicago Tribune -- which made daring claims about gun ownership in early America. In what became the history profession’s most talked-about and notorious case of the past generation, Arming America was eventually discredited after an unprecedented and controversial review called into question its sources, charges which Bellesiles and his many prominent supporters have always rejected.

One reviewer, Scott McLemee at Inside Higher Education had this to say:

These sentences have absorbed and rewarded my attention for days on end. They are a masterpiece of evasion. The paragraph is, in its way, quite impressive. Every word of it is misleading, including “and” and “the.”

Bellesiles has a certain claim to fame, certainly, but not as “the target of an infamous ‘swiftboating’ campaign.” He is, and will be forever remembered as, a historian whose colleagues found him to have violated his profession's standards of scholarly integrity. Arming America won the Bancroft Prize -- the highest honor for a book on American history. But far more salient is the fact that the Bancroft committee took the unprecedented step of withdrawing the prize.

It is true that he drew the ire of the National Rifle Association, and I have no inclination to give that organization's well-funded demagogy the benefit of any doubt. But gun nuts did not force Bellesiles to do sloppy research or to falsify sources. That his scholarship was grossly incompetent on many points is not a "controversial" notion. Nor is it open to dispute whether or not he falsified sources. That has been exhaustively documented by his peers. To pretend otherwise is itself demagogic.

If a major commercial press wants to help a disgraced figure make his comeback, that is one thing, but rewriting history is another. The New Press published many excellent books by important authors. It is out of respect for that record that I want to invite it to make a public apology for violating the trust its readers have in it.

Ouch! That's gonna leave a mark...

h/t Clayton Cramer.


Brigid said...

Ouch! On a lighter note a friend recently flew to London to speak at a medical conference. The flight attendant up in first class was flirting with him outrageously (which is always amusing to watch from afar).

He was reading a book by Plato. She said "Oh, it's that Plato's NEW book??? I need to see if my bookstore has that in".

Ed Rasimus said...

Publishers come in all flavors. Some are straight-up good citizens who honestly support the author and the truth. Some are agenda driven and convolute the literature to fit their political goals.

I had a great experience with my first book with Smithsonian Institution Press. The second book, however, was in production after a huge staff turn-over. My work was being touted as "a near revolt by the fighter pilots when faced with 'secret' missions into Laos and Cambodia..."

I threatened a lawsuit for defamation, libel, misrepresentation, etc. unless they desisted.

Their next shot was to have it reviewed by "noted historian and John Kerry biographer, Douglas Brinkley..." I told them they had better not.

Eventually Smithsonian went into bankruptcy and defaulted on the contract allowing me to move to St. Martin's Press who have been simply excellent for two books now.

The publisher here is simply rehabilitating the discredited historian to fulfill their agenda. Pointing that out is a public service of the most noble kind!