Can History be Popular?

Stephen Ambrose was not yet cold.. in his grave and critics were vindictively trampling on it.  Once respected and beloved, Ambrose spent his final days  defending his legacy from merciless attacks.  What had he done to precipitate such a demise?  Ambrose had written history books  people liked.


Plagiarism was the charge… and in academic circles it nearly amounts to a death sentence.  “Reporters” discovered instances in Ambrose’s  book The Wild Blue of passages that were “copied.”  He apologized, then clarified that he had not committed plagiarism, but had not cited the other book according to current academic standards.  Such a statement incited a witch hunt through his anthology for similarities with his source material.   Ambitious newshounds went as far as to dig through the deceased man’s doctoral thesis.  The ensuing maelstrom was a bizarre display of victimization of veterans, augmentation of little known authors, and academic lock step.  Only in the realm of academic history could peers admit to professional jealousy while openly advocating the ostracism of the envied.  No doubt some felt betrayed because Ambrose was one of them, trained at the University of Wisconsin-Madison under Professor William Hesseltine.  The attacks were too coordinated, the pressure too relentless for this to be merely writers promoting academic integrity.  Ambrose and the success he enjoyed had earned  the scorn of the multitudes of faceless academics who could only celebrate their publishing. 


Defining plagiarism is similar to explaining an IRS audit… everyone knows it’s bad, but only a few seem to fully comprehend it.  When explaining what Ambrose was accused of, his detractors usually clarify that he is guilty of “inadequate attribution.”  But, there is no doubt they say, this is plagiarism.  Ambrose presented history to the masses, not tiny conclaves of academics.  He found sources, utilized them, then cited them.  Inadequate attribution, essentially, is the proper use of quotation marks.  In academia they mean the world, to ordinary readers they mean ”he/she said.”  The writers cited by Ambrose should be grateful; appearing in an Ambrose bibliography exposes their books to millions of readers they had no chance reaching on their own.  Should he have directly quoted the passages in question, hindsight says yes,  but his works remain on the bookshelves of millions of Americans.  His detractors have only the internet to thank for their continued notoriety.

Stephen Ambrose wrote history books… for people who did not study it in college.  His books were never intended to be the definitive studies on any particular topic.  He never claimed as much.  Ambrose told stories and people were drawn to them.  Now that he is gone, the close-knit world of academia is using him as a cautionary tale to new students of history.  Ambrose does not deserve such treatment considering his significant contribution to American historical study.

One thought on “Can History be Popular?

  1. I am proud to say that being as I have promised the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, my father’s medals, scrapbook, etc; plus the items I have collected over the years by myself or from my readers, they have added my name to their Stephen Ambrose Society roster.


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