Thursday 20 May 2010

Bellesiles and redemption

Scott McLemee fisks the New Press's publicity campaign for Michael Bellesiles's forthcoming book. The publisher's blurb reads:
“A major new work of popular history, 1877 is also notable as the comeback book for a celebrated U.S. historian. Michael Bellesiles is perhaps most famous as the target of an infamous ‘swiftboating’ campaign by the National Rifle Association, following the publication of his Bancroft Prize-winning book Arming America (Knopf, 2000) -- ‘the best kind of non-fiction,’ according to the Chicago Tribune -- which made daring claims about gun ownership in early America. In what became the history profession’s most talked-about and notorious case of the past generation, Arming America was eventually discredited after an unprecedented and controversial review called into question its sources, charges which Bellesiles and his many prominent supporters have always rejected.”
McLemee helpfully reminds us that Bellesiles wasn't just controversial: he had the Bancroft prize withdrawn because his prior book was found to have been unprofessional, misleading and deeply flawed by a committee of his peers at Emory University. On the publisher's blurb, McLemee writes:
These sentences have absorbed and rewarded my attention for days on end. They are a masterpiece of evasion. The paragraph is, in its way, quite impressive. Every word of it is misleading, including “and” and “the.”
McLemee is very unimpressed with the New Press: while folks like Bellesiles ought to have a chance at redemption, it should be accompanied with a fair bit of due diligence rather than a whitewashing of their past.

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