Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Need for a Timeline

Richard Rayner's report, "Channeling Ike," for the April 26 issue of The New Yorker is already available on the magazine's Web site and definitely deserves attention. Indeed, it was through the attention of Jon Wiener's latest post to The Notion, the shared blog managed by The Nation, that I came to read the article in the first place. The primary claim of Rayner's piece is the accusation of "phantom scholarship" made against the late historian Stephen Ambrose. Much of Ambrose's reputation rests on his two-volume biography of Dwight David Eisenhower followed by two popular best-selling books about the Second World War, Band of Brothers and D-Day. Much of the scholarly substance of these books was grounded on the claim that, as Rayner put it, Ambrose had spent "'hundreds and hundreds of hours' interviewing him [Eisenhower] over a five-year period before Eisenhower died, in 1969." Rayner's own argument is concerned with the refutation of this claim.

This refutation is warranted by claims made by Tim Rives, the deputy director of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum. Rives first found reason to question Ambrose's credibility while preparing to moderate a panel celebrating Ambrose's writings on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the completion of the Eisenhower biography. Those claims began with evidence that, contrary to the story that Ambrose had told on numerous occasions, Eisenhower had not approached Ambrose to initiate the biography project and spiraled down to evidence from Eisenhower's own calendar that his time spent with Ambrose was far more limited than "hundreds and hundreds of hours."

I find it fascinating that so much of Rayner's case comes down to timeline analysis. Many of the specific time points could easily be confirmed; but there is no evidence of whether Rives or Rayner (or both of them) took the time to confirm the entire timeline. Accusations of shoddy scholarship should always be confronted by evidence obtained through scholarly discipline. If Rayner had to deal with space limitations imposed by The New Yorker, then he should have pushed for the strategy often applied by The New York Review: Create a Web site for the details, and tell the reader how to find it.

However, even if the timeline is accurate, why did it take 25 years for Ambrose's purportedly bogus claims to come to light? Any number of people could have done so. Was it just a matter of laziness? Did the biography find its way to many shelves only to sit and gather dust without ever being read? Didn't any of the reviewers of the biography and subsequent World War II books pick up on anything dodgy, such as citations reading only "Interview with DDE" without even giving a date? At the very least we need a better timeline to account for events between the appearance of the biography and Rives' discoveries 25 years later.

My personal hypothesis is that, in the word of writing, there are few settings in which reviews are taken seriously. As an academic and scientific researcher, I used to take great delight in writing reviews but knew full well that they were never regarded as "serious" publications. At best the substance of the review may eventually find its way into a book. One of the reasons I take so much delight in reading Paul Ricœur is that many of his arguments unfold out of reviews of the sources he has read, not just by his contemporaries but also from past sources that receive little attention. However, Ricœur's specialty was hermeneutics, which is primarily concerned with the interpretation of complex texts; so it is not surprising that his own ideas should emerge from his own exercises in interpretation. This is a time-consuming pursuit however, and those constrained by deadlines rarely have time for it. Thus, if we account for both the personal priorities of reviewers and the constraints imposed by publishers and editors, it is easy to see why serious hermeneutic reading has so few advocates these days. This may get at the crux of Rayner's lead sentence:

Nonfiction writers who succumb to the temptations of phantom scholarship are a burgeoning breed these days, although most stop short of fabricating interviews with Presidents.

The breed is burgeoning because the overall "ecology of writing" encourages its reproduction. Ambrose may make for a particularly appalling case study, but it is hard to imagine that Rayner's exposé will do anything to change that ecology.

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