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Ms. Tuchman For the Prosecution

No, everyone does NOT do it.......

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, March 06, 2002.

I am writing two books, you may have heard me say, one of them a history book that starts with the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Custer’s Last Stand, and biodegrades from there. In the Preface, I cheerfully acknowledge that phrases and wording that I did not write might well appear in the text, and that when someone notices, would they please let me know and I’ll change it and make sure the accreditation is accurate? I wrote that in 1993, I can prove, so it was well before the current ruckus over plagiarism brought on by popular historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose. On the other hand, they’re well published and I am still at work on the first book.

Still, what I was worried about is the hypnotic effect of certain phrases and passages that are prevalent in the writings of authors addressing the American West; even the most pedestrian writer gets hit by the muse and the majesty of this utterly romantic land and era. Things get inserted in your mental RAM and they are hard to remove, primarily because you don’t notice they are there because they seem so perfect and irreplaceable. I kept catching phrases from Evan Connell, Lt. Bourke, Custer himself, and many others that I wrote as if they had occurred to me. So many, that I worried I have not caught them all. Hence, the warning and the mea culpa.

You would think that I would be more sympathetic to Goodwin and Ambrose, but I am not. And I was going to offer two other ‘popular historians’, so called, who have not had those charges leveled against them. One was David McCullough, the best writer of the three, but a sweep of the WEB indicates that he too has been caught at similar if lesser falls from fastidity. In truth, many of these incidents involving McCullough, Ambrose, and Goodwin, are similar to the ones I am afraid of when I write. When you research and write down the facts, your subconscious can resurrect the original sentence structures quite well months later, and they appear as if you wrote it with no conscious effort. Such is the power of great writing in your sources, and the emotional horror of war and trauma can inspire that sort of composition among those who write seldom or otherwise write badly. Historians need to be aware of it. Once aware of it, they need to prevent the error.

Those three giants of American history have much resource and many employees available to catch and verify. They have no excuse for chronic violations. Worse, the fact that virtually all of their works are subject to identical charges, and the fact they don’t precisely become gracious in their admissions, and the fact that they often pass judgments on the works of others – like Goodwin on the Pulitzer Committee – speaks to a sort of reverse noblesse oblige, that somehow they have the right to pillage the works of lesser authors because they mention them in the bibliography, if not in quotes and footnotes.

And it is true that the pressures of publishers on authors can be hellacious, so perhaps time and pressure are responsible for this sort of thing more than felonious intent or intellectual hypocrisy?

No. My fourth historian – by far the best writer of them all – never was accused of any of that. This historian was roundly condemned by her peers and rivals because she outsold them all, wrote lyric sentences, and had not spent her larval years as an academic. Oh, and she was both female and Jewish. Go to the Web and, with a search engine, type in the word ‘plagiarism’ and the name of some historian. All provide pages of entries. Barbara Tuchman has only two, both quotes from her regarding this very subject. Tuchman, who died in 1989, was often sniped at. Given her natural enemies of bigots, rivals, misogynists, and idiots – all of whom would have loved to prove that she stole intellectual property – have never yet been able to do so, so it gives the lie to an argument that all historians are, to greater and lesser extent, guilty. Of course, nobody wrote as well as she did.

So I don’t hold truck with Ambrose, Goodwin, or McCullough. It can be done, it can be done well, and since they have the tools available to have done so, it is at best laziness and at worse an attempt to boost their own reputations. And Barbara Tuchman, who brought her enthusiasm and intellectual integrity to several eras and never became a panderer like Ambrose and Goodwin, nor a television celebrity like McCullough, and who was never accepted by the great tribe of real historians – so called – for reasons revealing more about the tribe than her, still stands with her credentials unsullied. Let’s remember that when the fudging begins, as journalists try to soften the blows against their idols. Tuchman’s record proves the truth. Again. This is Dark Cloud.