Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Saturday, December 17, 2005

Scholarship Ain't Hip-Hop Sampling

[gary daily col. 23 June 30, 2002]

The footnote would seem to be the smallest detail in a work of history. Yet it carries a large burden of responsibility, testifying to the validity of the work, the integrity (and the humility) of the historian, and to the dignity of the discipline.
--Gertrude Himmelfarb

If you’re paying attention, you know the lowly footnote has been batted about in the press this past year in relation to the professional indiscretions, viz. plagiarism, of the popular historians, Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin.

You do remember footnotes, don’t you? These nicely numbered lines of information come in two varieties. Basic source notes start with the names of authors or editors. What follows always includes italicized book and journal titles and publication data. This all may bristle with the barbwire of abbreviations in Latin and English. That “viz.” (it's Latin for namely) I hit you with in the first sentence being one example of the species.

Content or explanatory notes consist of the author stepping aside from the text and imparting information of a diverting nature. For example, Anthony Grafton reports in The Footnote: A Curious History that Edward Gibbon used one of his 383 footnotes in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to make fun of the too-literal theologian who castrated himself after reading the injunction to "disarm the tempter." That Gibbon, what a sense of humor.

Notes of this kind are about authors knowing more about the subject than they feel they can fit into their main text. Grafton, an unabashed champion of the footnote, insists all the good stuff is in explanatory notes. He calls footnotes "anthills, swarming with constructive and combative activity." Grafton tracks down the first such note to Pierre Bayle, author of the Historical and Critical Dictionary (1696).

Still, many readers ask what good are they? They fill up space, distract the eye, interrupt the flow of the text. And besides, you may say, I know the person writing this book I’m reading is smarter than I am. Duh! That’s why I’m reading this book. Why rub my nose in all of this academic apparatus?

But not so fast. Here’s William H. McNeill, the distinguished University of Chicago historian on source notes.

“Citation of the source of a quote or idea or piece of information is surely the central role for responsible footnoting. And citing one's sources accurately is not a trivial matter. It holds erratic personal memory in check and acknowledges debts, while incidentally also establishing a scholar's claim to participate in a given universe of discourse.” In other words, This ain't Hip Hop sampling pre-1991, Jack.

Footnotes may not be engrossing to most readers, and they may not be appropriate in works of a general nature, or in books with no intention of contributing new information, ideas, or adding to an ongoing “universe of discourse.” However, the choice to cite sources, to use footnotes in a book, carries with it the responsibility to fulfill the letter and the spirit of McNeill’s views on footnoting. And this brings us back to Ambrose and Goodwin.

There is little use in rehashing the details of the Ambrose and Goodwin cases. They operated outside of the standards of scholarly procedure. They “borrowed” the words and research of others and, again in McNeill’s words, failed, “[to] hold(s) erratic personal memory in check and acknowledge(s) debts.” Both have admitted to this and they and their publishers have taken steps of a personal and monetary nature in restitution for these professional failings.

Given these disclosures and reactions, you would think these cases would be, not forgotten, but at least behind us. Unfortunately we now have David Gergen’s recent mewing defense of Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin. His “U.S. News & World Report” editorial of June 10, 2002, desperately seeks to excuse these two. This is a disservice to the reading public.

Sure, Gergen says, “both Ambrose and Goodwin were wrong, but their mistakes were inadvertent, born of haste, not intention.” He follows this non-defense defense up with comments lovers of history would not dispute. He nails Americans as an historically illiterate bunch. His notion that there is a great need for epic stories of the past that are engaging, accessible, and “entrancing” is unassailable. But is Gergen really saying that such history, history written with style and verve, cannot adhere to the long established practices of solid scholarship? I hope not.

Gergen’s argument is surprising and disappointing. He is someone you would expect to see leading the charge for “standards” and unadulterated scholarship. It would be a good idea for Gergen to check in with fellow conservative and historian, Gertrude Himmelfarb, before he pronounces on this subject again.


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