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Do you really care?

Over the last decade or so I’ve pondered whether readers of historical works as a rule value originality and fresh thinking. Doubtless some readers do: they tend to be more discerning readers who have read more broadly and deeply, and so they are in a position to appreciate original though because they understand the context of the discussion and the topic. But do more occasional readers – the folks who claim to be avid readers (and in some cases claim to be actual historians) based on a rather meager menu of reading – really care? I’m not so sure.

Let’s turn first to plagiarism, an issue that has gotten a great deal of attention over the last several years. Perhaps the inaugural incident in the recent round of controversies happened at the beginning of the 1990s, when Stephen Oates was accused of plagiarizing passages in other works in composing his biography of Abraham Lincoln, With Malice Toward None. Oates denied the charges, but the ensuing battle took years. Oates offered his view of the affair here.  His most persistent accuser, Michael Burlingame, responded here.

You can follow this 2002 debate to your hearts’ content, but what’s important here is that the nature of the plagiarism … a case of paraphrasing prose in ways that suggest that one was essentially copying another narrative. That was also the essence of the charges brought against Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin.

For me, the Ambrose case proved particularly troubling, because Ambrose was fond of talking about how much he loved to write: his own adviser at the University of Wisconsin, William Best Hesseltine, was a master at the interesting turn of phrase. Thus the accusation struck at the very core of what Ambrose celebrated in doing his work. Various discussions showed a broader spectrum of responses, as this example suggests.  When it came to my attention a few months later that a certain Grant biography contained prose that echoed passages in my own 1991 Let Us Have Peace (as well as the work of Bruce Catton and Jim McPherson), I understood even more acutely the nature of the “stealing” involved.

However, I also find that sort of plagiarism pedestrian. Oh, it’s wrong, to be sure, but it does not touch the other aspect of what I see as the creative process: coming up with compelling arguments and better interpretations of what happened based upon a more careful understanding of what happened. This is not always easy to achieve, but it’s hard to justify engaging in historical scholarship otherwise. Moreover, it’s in the nature of professional training as a scholar. In crafting a dissertation topic, you set forth the literature that already exists and the ensuing historical conversation: then you define how your contribution is new, different, and (so you believe) better. You may come to that point in different ways. My book on Henry Adams’s career in politics followed the neat sequential pattern; it took somewhat longer to evolve in Let Us Have Peace precisely because the boundaries of that book and its central intellectual concerns changed over time.

However, over the last few years I wonder whether the general reader or the person whose intense interest in the Civil War is matched only by a vast ignorance of the literature (and perhaps fundamental facts) really cares about whether what they are reading is original. Over the past several years I’ve encountered a retired history professor who spent several years claiming he was developing an original insight into how Northerners viewed Southerners. The trouble was that it wasn’t original at all, and hints here and there suggested that the retired professor knew it, but he could not resist smugly preening in cyberspace. Were people outraged when it was revealed that he had, to put it gently, exaggerated the originality of his insight? On the whole, there were few expressions of it. Other discussants actually sought to excuse the act in ways that called into question whether it was worth highlighting what even the retired professor admitted was his exaggeration of originality in what he liked to call “my theory.” Suffice it to say that Oates is not the only person whose expressions of outrage seem at times excessive.

Scholars will recognize the stealing involved in appropriating the ideas of another and setting them forth as one’s own original concepts. But what should we make of the book that simply offers something unoriginal but which presents that information with ample documentation? There’s a place for synthesis (textbooks, for example), although very good textbooks continue to display an interpretive spine. There’s a place for books that bring together scholarly work and presents the results in an engaging narrative for a broader audience, although it would seem that in many cases this would not nearly be so critical in writing about the American Civil War given the popularity of the topic. Still, there are books where the problem is not that it’s particularly bad, but it’s not original (and I have this problem with books regardless of whether I agree with the argument presented). What should I make of this?

It may be that very popularity which contributes to this problem. If I was in this profession simply to make money, I would frame proposals with broad popular appeal and pitch the idea to trade presses. Heck, I might not even have to leave my own house to write a nifty 300-page narrative of Gettysburg (oh, a trip to the library might help, and so would doing some probing on the WWW). Oh, some of my peers may sling some mud at me (Eric, Dimitri, put your hands down!), but there would be a publisher and a market for the result. I’d make more than enough money; I could churn out a book every two years; and I bet certain TV channels would still flock to have me offer the pseudo-profound on-camera comment (“It remained for a college professor from Maine to save the day”).

Think about it. What value do you place on originality? How can readers (who fuel the commercial aspects of this enterprise) compel publishers and authors to do better? Or might it not be the case that a majority of readers simply want the same story told them time and again: for them opening a new book is the equivalent of a weekly visit to McDonalds? After all, if many of my peers outside my field of interest think that all I do is to cater to the undiscriminating palate of wild-eyed buffs (many of whom, I suspect, don’t read much at all), why not simply live down to my peers’ expectations and proceed laughing all the way to the bank?

Comments (12) to “Do you really care?”

  1. All you “historians” might try writing about the war in the west. That’s mostly undiscovered. Thtat would take care of your plagarism problems.

    Don

  2. I think the discriminating reader wants originality, but the publisher and the bookstore wants books that sell. Hence, the same tired narrative about Gettysburg or the sensationalistic story of Booth’s capture fills the shelves while the serious and original treatments are only available for order. Most of the customers who are looking for the original work realize they won’t find it on the chain store shelves and get it off the web or through the publisher themselves.
    Best
    Rob

  3. Don — As you well know, there’s a rather significant body of scholarship on the Western campaigns; moreover, one of the most discussed cases of plagiarism in Civil War history several decades ago involved a history of the Atlanta campaign.

  4. Might the better question be is original and insightful scholarship compelling to the “average reader?” I imagine that the people who buy most of the works simply don’t have enough historigraphic background (because I can’t imagine that academics outpurchase self-appointed “Civil War Buffs”) to discern a fresh idea when confronted with it. Besides, are they really looking for that? Or are they looking for something that piques their interest for a few minutes and maybe glean a bit of trivia to impress friends and family (as the awe-inspiring “civil war buff”)?

    Don’t get me wrong. I am a fan of original scholarship! I just wonder if at this point we’re simply publishing it for the academy rather than the public at large. I mean, I did a quick search on WorldCat for the term Gettysburg, and I came up with 80 books, most of them redundant. Granted, “The Battle of Gettysburg” and “Gettysburg” may contain new and thought-provoking interpretations, but I doubt it.

    I’m a grad student, and I’m hoping to publish someday, and hopefully it will be original. But the big difference between me and the average reader is training. You have to know enough of what’s been written to understand what hasn’t, and that’s why I wonder if we’re asking the right questions about originality.

  5. Don — As you well know, there’s a rather significant body of scholarship on the Western campaigns; moreover, one of the most discussed cases of plagiarism in Civil War history several decades ago involved a history of the Atlanta campaign.

    Significant, compared to what? The war in Florida? Battles in Maine? The Minnesota Campaign? Confederates in Oregon? Union forces on Mt. St. Helena? And your comment on a 70 year old plagiarism case confirms my statement, unless you had your tongue in your cheek while tapping it out?

    “In his introduction to Virtual Gettysburg, guide and collector Gary Kross states, “There are over 5,000 books, pamphlets and articles about the Battle of Gettysburg. Even if you could find it all, even if you could afford it all, you couldn’t live long enough to read it all.” That’s the bad news. The good news is that the pace of Gettysburg scholarship and publication has never been faster.”

    Wow! We’re going to get more Gettysburg stuff and FASTER!
    http://www.virtualgettysburg.com/exhibit/bookshelf/main.html

    “Available from Greenwood Publishing. Ulysses S. Grant: A Bibliography, by Dr. Marie Ellen Kelsey consists of 4242 annotated citations to journals, newspapers, books, and chapters in books.
    http://faculty.css.edu/mkelsey/usgrant/index.html

    In Ulysses S. Grant: A Bibliography, Dr. Kelsey has created an invaluable resource for Grant scholars. The bibliography consists of twenty chapters covering Grant’s early life, his careers both as soldier and as president, his associations with various individuals, his post-presidency activities, the role alcohol played in his life, his battle with throat cancer, and ultimately, his tragic death. What makes this book truly special is that Kelsey cites not only the usual books and journals but also a wide variety of nontraditional materials ranging from manuscripts to musical scores.
    http://www.greenwood.com/catalog/AP18.aspx

    A Google search for “Ulysses S. Grant” of ABE books give a total of 6,207 books. Many are duplicates.
    http://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?sts=t&y=9&kn=Ulysses+S.+Grant&x=10

    A Google search for “George H. Thomas” gives a total of 89 books, of which approximately 40 are by Cleaves. Many of the others are duplicates.

    http://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?bx=on&ds=30&bi=0&y=9&kn=%22General+George+H.+Thomas%22+not++Anthony+Tollope&bsi=0&sortby=2&x=83&prevpage=2

    Get serious Mr. Simpson, many of the dribbles that come out about the war in the west are poorly written, poorly researched and should be an insult to your intelligence.

    Why are not historians interested in the whole war, or are they only interested in writing about those that sell? As was intimated to me by one publisher.

    Don

  6. Don, you are certainly entitled to your perspective, and it would seem from your argument that you render neglecting the war in the West in terms of neglecting George H. Thomas, since, if I recall correctly, Ulysses S. Grant fought a few battles in the western theater. But I would not confuse “several” decades with “seventy years.” The case I have in mind concerns a study of the Atlanta campaign that appeared less that twenty years ago.

  7. Adam–Thanks for weighing in. It’s worth noting that when you comment on writing for the academy that sometimes I’m not so sure whether that’s always a worthwhile endeavor in the Civil War field, given how some scholars outside of “Civil War history” dismiss it as “popular history” or make snide comments about “military history” (as if all writing about the Civil War era must be by its nature military history, and a form of military history that is largely a retelling of tales about battles and leaders, weapons and tactics). Those critics would pounce on Don’s demand for more books on George H. Thomas as typical of the buff audience they have decided we must serve.

  8. Brooks wrote:

    (”It remained for a college professor from Maine to save the day”)

    It might have been better stated to have said “It remained for a college professor from Maine to save the remains of the Army of the Potomac …”

    Then you could have been known for truly creative interpretation … :-)

  9. Brooks D. Simpson wrote:

    Don, you are certainly entitled to your perspective, and it would seem from your argument that you render neglecting the war in the West in terms of neglecting George H. Thomas, since, if I recall correctly, Ulysses S. Grant fought a few battles in the western theater. But I would not confuse “several” decades with “seventy years.” The case I have in mind concerns a study of the Atlanta campaign that appeared less that twenty years ago.

    I’m sorry Mr. Simpson, I was taught that a decade was ten and therefore several would mean seventy. Is this some kind of “new math” you teach in Arizona?

    I’m also sorry for misleading you about my “demands” for more books about Thomas. I thought the plethora of books written about Gettysburg, the subject that I led with, and the fact that they are now going to be coming out more and faster, might lead into a discussion about the lack of historian interest in the west. I tossed in the facts about Grant vs. Thomas books to back up my first argument. I could have used Rosecrans, Buell or McPherson.

    Using the numbers cited I find that an average of ~three books etc. per month have been written about Grant since his death and the same (~3) for Gettysburg.

    I was also intrigued by the mention of “Musical Scores.” I what they sound like? Can you see the leads?

    Foster Brooks as Ulysses?
    Anthony Perkins as Sherman?
    Danny Devito as Sheridan?
    Don Rickles as Meade?
    David Hyde Pierce as Rawlins?
    Willy Nelson as Lee?
    Jack Elam as Custer?
    Lee J. Cobb as Rosekrans?
    Leonardo DiCaprio as McPherson?
    Robert Mitchum as J. B. Hood?
    Gabby Hayes as Richard Ewell?

    Don

  10. Great point Mr. Simpson and one I’ve wrestled with a lot as of late. Being a high school teacher, asking students to think originally is a challenge. But a larger problem I believe exists in the University environment also.

    I am finishing up a Masters in History with what I consider to be a good history dept. But recently I have the feeling that everything I write is a total farce. For instance, if I take a class on the High Middle Ages and write a 20 page paper sitting at a library in Alabama, how original can it be? Conversely, when taking a class on 19th Century America, how many Professors really ask students to pour through primary sources looking for something original to place in the context of current historiography?

    I have had one such class, the Old South. Granted it was a very small class(six people) but we were challenged to find “local/primary” sources and place them in the broader context of history. We had no tests and the paper was 20-25 pages and compposed most of our grade. It is probably the only original thing I’ve ever written. But it was because I had the time(and the impetus) to pour through diaries, microfilm, etc. It was a wonderful experience and I just presented my findings to the state historians association. It is now my thesis and contiues to grow because I was asked to think originally.

    I do believe history has become a bit of a cookie cutter discipline with the rewards for originality being of secondary importance. For instnace, my current paper is on British debate on the Civil War. I went out on a limb in regard to the importance of the Trent Affair and I am pretty nervous as to how my professor will view this considering I am basing it off of past historical scholarship.

    As for originality, it is easy to set our sites too low and to disregard it because it isn’t selling books. As for my thesis, I am worried that while the place I am writing about may be original, will my insight and conclusions be equally so? Great site by the way.
    Chris

  11. Hi Chris–

    On the whole, professors don’t expect much in terms of originality through the course of undergraduate coursework, with the possible exception of an honors thesis, senior paper, or some other form of capstone exercise. Some of us had different experiences, and I’ll reflect on mine soon as a case study of how I came to do what I do.

    Graduate training is different, in that you must make a contribution to knowledge that is distinct and original. In the case of professionally-trained historians, they tend to achieve that goal with their dissertation, which usually becomes their first book. Where they go from there is another question, and some people have managed to do both original scholarship and more broadly synthetic scholarship intended for a broader audience.

    Non-professionally-trained historians often don’t have this expectation of originality or the risk of disapproval by their peers, and so there is less of a demand for originality: it either has to come from within or it has to be an external expectation to which they must respond (or some combination of the two).

  12. I like what Mark Twain said about originality, that Adam was the only man who, when he had a good idea, could be sure that no one had thought of it before.

    There are several kinds of originality. For a high school or college student, originality can mean confronting the evidence and coming up with one’s own analysis, as opposed to simply parroting some scholar’s conclusions. The student’s originality will probably not be as profound, but it is a necessary step toward true scholarship.

    Originality in writing a book can mean diffusing knowledge to those who don’t have it or bringing new information or a new perspective to a subject. In the former case, I’m talking about the best of those who write for a general audience, such as Shelby Foote. Foote stated that he used only secondary sources, but I’ll bet that his writing has captivated many people to learn more “the war.” I don’t consider any of these three examples as being less than the others.