Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Stephen Ambrose- When Historians Are Economical With The Truth

This has not been a good week to be a history writer. With the Orlando Figes scandal still brewing nicely comes allegations that the noted historian of the Second World War Stephen Ambrose (Ambrose, has sold over five million books during his lifetime) who wrote Band of Brothers has been accused of lying over a biography he wrote of former US Dwight D Eisenhower. It has been reported that the respected historian is said to have 'made up' meetings with 34th US president

The book Band of Brothers told the exploits of a company of US airborne troops in the Second World War Europe. Steven Spielberg turned the book into a highly praised TV series.

The American historian who was the authorised biography of President Dwight D Eisenhower's and who wrote or edited more than a dozen books about him is involved (posthumously as he died in 2002) in controversy.

He has been accused of inventing scores of meetings. The most serious allegation is that he fabricated entire interviews with him. The story has reverberated around the academic community all over the world and has grave implications for historical research.

There is no doubt that Ambrose is a gifted writer and historian. The books written by him have brought him much acclaim and with it money. He was used as a military adviser on the 1998 Oscar-winning film Saving Private Ryan. Band of Brothers was turned into a TV series. Ambrose was a producer.

While others have said Ambrose “indulged in some sort of fantasy about the extent of his relationship with Eisenhower” others have been a slight harsher. In many interviews, Ambrose claimed to have had” hundreds and hundreds of hours" with Eisenhower. He further claimed to” spend two days a week working with Eisenhower in his office.”

It has now come to light that records of Eisenhower's meetings prove that Ambrose did not have any lengthy meetings face to face "I think five hours [in total] is a generous estimation of the actual time they spent together. I personally would push it back to less than two or three," said Tim Rives, deputy director of the Eisenhower presidential library in Abilene, Kansas

One newspaper article reported “the discovery came to light almost by accident. The museum had been planning an exhibition exploring the relationship between Ambrose and Eisenhower. Rives found that the records showed that Ambrose and Eisenhower had met only three times, and never alone. He found that on seven occasions when Ambrose had claimed in the footnotes to his book supreme commander to have met Eisenhower, his subject was either elsewhere in the country or holding meetings with other people at the time. “In one example, Ambrose claimed to have had an interview with Eisenhower in Pennsylvania”, when Eisenhower was in Kansas. "The whole story kind of unravelled from there. It was quite a surprise. We were not looking for it, so it sort of happened almost by accident," Rives said.

What is extraordinary for a writer of Ambrose calibre is he must have known that the life of a former president would be detailed minutely by their employees. According to reports, there is little or no chance that Ambrose could have held lengthy interviews with Eisenhower that were not recorded. Ambrose later said a large number of topics were discussed, but even this has been refuted

Rives said he does not believe this” I find that very doubtful. That should be something that would be a concern for scholars. It could cast doubt."

According to newspaper reports, this is not the first brush with scandal for Ambrose. In 2002 a serious charge of plagiarism was levelled at him when he was accused of lifting whole chunks from Thomas Childers book The Wild Blue.

Ambrose’s publisher was forced to issue an apology for Ambrose’s habit of failing to put quotation marks in some short passages taken from The Wild Blue. While not absolving Ambrose surely this sort of thing should be picked up by the publishers.

Another struggling author who had work shamelessly lifted by Ambrose said

"I continue to be surprised that a guy as successful as he was financially would stoop to push a guy like me around," but it doesn't bother me in any way. What I resented the most was the way he denigrated people in 'Citizen Soldiers.' Ralph Kerley was a superb field commander, the coolest guy in the face of battle, the paragon of what a real soldier is like, and in Ambrose's book he describes Kerley as being 'discombobulated.' He wasn't discombobulated, and I made Ambrose change that language. That continues to offend me.” You’ve got to hand it to Ambrose in this sense: he certainly brought to the general public a popularization of World War 11 when it was beginning to fade away. For that, the people who fought in that war owe him a debt of gratitude.” If he had come to me openly and said I’d like to do so and so with your manuscript, I would have been delighted to cooperate. He didn't do that”.

While it is tempting to see this scandal as a one of which is not to let Ambrose off the hook but there are wider considerations. As with Orlando Figes, a growing number of historians have lost sight of why they wanted to be historians in the first place. This has been replaced by an obsession with book sales, fame and money.

Also as James Palmer said, “bad history's corrodes public understanding”.
“It’s tough to write history for a mass audience, as opposed to your academic peers. As a popular history writer myself, I’m all too aware of this. Academic writing can assume greater knowledge on the part of the audience, tends to be more concerned with theory, disputes within the field, and the authenticity of sources, and often eschews narrative for in-depth analysis. Popular history writing, on the other hand, has to entertain first and foremost. A clear story can help carry the readers through a complex mess of characters and motivations, and sometimes things have to be simplified.” but this doesn't mean you can play fast and loose with the truth. In fact, given the impact of popular history writing on public awareness of history, sticking to the facts, or at least as close to them as any historian can get, matters even more”

Ambrose’s bad history is a reflection of the type of society we live in. When money is worshipped to unprecedented heights when lying, cheating and swindling is carried out by huge corporations and governments then it is hardly surprising that this begins to reflect itself in current historiography. After all as I said in a previous blog “while much more will come out on this subject the recent debate does serve as a barometer of the crisis in academia. Whatever Orlando Figes mental state is at the moment he is subject to intense pressures inside and outside university”.

Perhaps I can put it more succinctly as Fred Williams does “academics, however, live not in a vacuum and are subject to the many ideological pressures that rage throughout society. In the mass media, in public discourse, in popular culture, an undeniable trend is easily discernible: the intellectual decay that set in under Thatcher and Reagan has assumed shocking forms under Blair and Bush” and for that matter Gordon Brown.

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