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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Stephen Ambrose and the non-talks with Eisenhower

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The latest wrinkle in the legacy of historian Stephen Ambrose leaves me flat out cold. He was a good writer and storyteller, and was rightly appreciated for making some of the narratives of the past resonate for a wide audience. As a writer of (not) popular (enough) history myself, he has done some good things.

But the veneer faded fast.

Ambrose died of cancer in 2002, and while he was still alive he was accused of plagiarism, a practice he effectively admitted, apologized for, and wrote off as faulty sourcing rather than intentional theft. Those transgressions didn't indict the work -- just the lineage of the facts. But then veterans who were portrayed in some of his World War Two works complained that he had misrepresented their stories. That nudges up to the line of indicting the veracity of the work.

Not The New Yorker reports that Ambrose apparently invented out of thin air lengthy face-to-face interviews with Eisenhower -- interviews that Ambrose used in his defining biographies of the former five-star general and two-term president.

That's a much more serious transgression, one, I'm sad to say, that indicts the work. It's one thing to "borrow" the works of others. It's more problematic to have your sources say you got fundamental things wrong.

But it's a fatal mistake to knowingly make stuff up. I fail my students for these transgressions. And in this case, we have to say: Ambrose = epic fail
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