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?