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Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, and Fraud in the Writing of American History
Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, and Fraud in the Writing of American History
Peter Charles Hoffer
PublicAffairs, 2004
400 pp., $26.00

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D. G. Hart


Historical Fictions

Making it up.

Just when historians of the United States were booking flights for their 2005 annual meeting in San Francisco, the Organization of American Historians (OAH), the sponsoring scholarly society, announced that the conference would be moving to San Jose. Anyone familiar with the charms of these two cities will appreciate the sacrifice the OAH was making. The reason for the change was a hotel union dispute in which the OAH sided with labor. In the History News Network's online forum, several historians weighed in on the decision. Not surprisingly, the majority of responses, mainly from social and labor historians, affirmed the OAH. On the other hand, a couple of historians objected to the politicizing of the profession. One of these, Alonzo Hamby, distinguished professor of history at Ohio University, asserted, "[T]he OAH exists to promote the study of history and advance the interests of its members. One of the ways it does this is by holding a well-planned, accessible annual convention with scholarly panels, an exhibition hall, and functioning employment services." Hamby did not indicate that these responsibilities included avoiding cities like San Jose, but he did write that no matter the politics of individual historians, the OAH was acting irresponsibly.

Peter Charles Hoffer's Past Imperfect ends where the OAH's decision began. Reviewing a series of recent scandals among scholars of American history, Hoffer laments a situation in which learned societies like the OAH can take the union's side in a labor dispute but refuse to enforce scholarly standards. Hoffer examines specifically the plagiarism cases of Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, the falsification of documents by Michael Bellesiles, and Joseph Ellis' distortion of his own past. Hoffer had served on the Professional Division of the American Historical Association (AHA), the other major professional historical organization in the United States. The task of this committee was to ensure that historians maintained ...

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