Saturday, January 12, 2002

Book's validity questioned




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        I was criticized last year for my “starry-eyed” review of a book called Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. The book said few people cared about or owned guns in the early 1800s. It offered mounds of evidence, which I and many others believed. Today, I'm not so sure.

        In the grand tradition of a free society, Arming America has been ripped apart by a motley crew of contrarians, gun nuts and serious scholars.

        Historians always argue over each others' work. But the inconsistencies in this book, and the muddled explanations from author Michael Bellesiles, go beyond mere differences of opinion.

        Arming America had the power to alter interpretations of the Second Amendment, which is why it drew so much scrutiny. Now Mr. Bellesiles has been asked by his employer, Emory University, to respond fully to accusations of carelessness, distortion and faulty sampling.

        He will do so in the February issue of the William and Mary Quarterly, which has pushed up its publication date because of the controversy.

        How fascinating. With all its scandals, popular history is starting to look like an egghead version of Survivor.

Not the only one

        Besides Arming America, we've got Edmund Morris inserting fictional characters into his biography of Ronald Reagan. There's Pulitzer prize-winner Joseph Ellis admitting he never went to Vietnam, after telling fantastic stories about his fabricated service.

        And this week, the spotlight found historian Stephen Ambrose. Seems his latest work, The Wild Blue, contains nearly verbatim passages from another author.

        You have to wonder: Is anyone editing these guys?

        I talked to Robert Gross, book-review editor at the William and Mary Quarterly, a prestigious journal that practices rigorous fact-checking.

        One problem, Mr. Gross said, is that scholars are churning out so much material the academic community has trouble keeping up.

        And publishers tend to seek reviewers whose blurbs will help sell books. They pass over the obscure super-nerds who are most likely to find mistakes.

Shaky footnotes

        Arming America has 135 pages of notes. Mr. Bellesiles cites hundreds of documents from early America, including gun censuses, military letters, wills, travel journals, Senate reports and other historians' findings.

        His use of probate records is one example of many controversies. These documents, inventories of people's possessions after death, purportedly showed that only about 14 percent had guns.

        The book cited records from San Francisco County and 39 other places across the United States. But when people double-checked, they found the records in San Francisco had been destroyed by fire.

        Mr. Bellesiles said he must have seen the records someplace else. He named several libraries as possibilities, but the records couldn't be found there, either.

        The Quarterly's February issue will feature four pieces challenging the book and a 10,000-word response from Mr. Bellesiles. Copies can be ordered through the College of William and Mary Web site, at www.wm.edu/oieahc.

        I hope Mr. Bellesiles can support his argument. If not, I'm grateful for the doggedness of his critics. History is fragile enough as it is. We need skeptics to keep everybody honest.
       E-mail ksamples@enquirer.com. Past columns at Enquirer.com/columns/samples.

       



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