Year of the Yellow Notepad

by Alexander Cockburn

Call it the year of the yellow notepad. Doris Kearns Goodwin, ejected from Parnassus, from Pulitzer jury service and kindred honorable obligations, sinks under charges of plagiarism consequent, she claims, upon sloppy note-taking on her trusty yellow legal pads.

Michael Bellesiles, taking heavy artillery fire for knavish scholarship in his Arming America, says that his notations from probate records central to his assertions about gun ownership in eighteenth-century America were on legal yellow pads that were irreparably damaged when his office at Emory sustained an inundation in 2000, the year his book was published. Connoiseurs of such sports of nature or of plumbing may note that, unusually, this particular flood came in September rather than mid-April, when people have completed their tax returns.

Stephen Ambrose, overtaken by charges of plagiarism, did not have recourse to the yellow-notepad defense, presumably because he had become rich enough not only to discard them in favor of teams of researchers, whom he duly blamed for the lax citations, but to make a out-of-pocket donation amounting to $1.25 million donation for environmental good works, including restoration on the Blackfoot River, no doubt hoping that water in Montana would be as efficacious as in Emory in purging the record.

The plagiarist lurks in all of us, and temptation or carelessness loom closer with the cut-and-paste function on the computer. But computers notwithstanding, the most majestic plagiarism I can recall was wrought by the Scottish poet Hugh McDiarmid. When I was working at the Times Literary Supplement in the early 1960s a review commended some lines by McDiarmid on a bird’s skeleton on a beach. A few weeks later someone wrote in to point out that these same lines could be found in an earlier short story, not by McDiarmid.

The poet took refuge in the “selective retentive memory defense” whereby he claimed to have unconsciously remembered the lines though not their author. This posture became harder to sustain when it emerged after various other discoveries of plagiarism that McDiarmid had transcribed several hundred lines from an essay on Karl Korsch, inserting them into his own well known “Homage” to the Austrian satirist. If it’s any comfort to Goodwin and Ambrose, I don’t think this damaged McDiarmid any more than did his use of Hollinshed William Shakespeare.

With Bellesiles the stakes are higher because his subject addressed the issue of gun ownership in America and the Second Amendment. By the mid-1990s the battle was tilting decisively in favor of those arguing that the Second Amendment asserts the right of individual American citizens to own guns for self-defense and, if necessary, to counter government tyranny by means of armed popular resistance. (NB: the preceding sentence concludes with 22 words lifted from a piece by Chris Mooney in Lingua Franca.)

Like any good tactician, Bellesiles shifted the terms of discussion. He said he’d reviewed more than eleven thousand probate records between 1765 to 1850 from New England and Pennsylvania and had discovered that roughly 14 per cent of all adult, white, Protestant males owned firearms, meaning about 3 per cent of the total population at the time of the revolution and that hence “all this talk about universal gun ownership is entirely a myth that I can find no evidence of.” (More cribbing from Mooney.)

So if the people weren’t armed, and if even official militias were mostly a disheveled rabble without arms, the second amendment was really an antic fantasy, like feudal armor in the mock Tudor hall of a Bradford cotton millionaire.

The anti-gun crowd greeted Bellesiles with as much ecstasy as any relief column by early settlers in Indian country. The Organization of American Historians gratefully pinned the Binkley-Stephenson Award to Bellesiles’ chest for his 1996 essay on the origins of American gun culture. Arming America elicited not only fervent applause by Garry Wills in the New York Times Book Review and by Edmund Morgan in the New York Review, but also the Bancroft Prize.

Bellesiles came under attack, but since his assailants included NRA types and even Charlton Heston (who said memorably that Bellesiles had too much time on his hands) their often cogent demolitions were initially discounted as sore-loser barrages from the rednecks. Even so, the sappers pressed forward and began to penetrate Bellseiles’ inner defenses.

A crucial chunk of battlement crashed to the ground when Bellesiles’ most sedulous critic, James Lindgren, investigated his claim to have researched probate records at a National Archives center in East Point Georgia. The center told Lindren no such records existed. (Cockburn’s source here is Daniel Postel in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Since Cockburn once borrowed Postel’s car in Chicago and saddled him with a couple of parking tickets he definitely owes him a cite. These two tickets were probably the final straws in a load of fines that prompted Postel to flee Chicago for Washington DC.) Then it turned out Bellesiles had invented probate records in Vermont and San Francisco that don’t exist.

Bellesiles’ Waterloo comes in the February edition of the William and Mary Quarterly, as entertaining a bout of scholarly combat (though far more decorous) as I’ve read since Warden Sparrow’s review of an American edition of Housman in the early Sixties, done anonymously in the TLS.

Primed in part by Lindren, Gloria Main of UC Boulder pounds Bellesiles with medium range artillery, as in “[Bellesiles] found only 7 per cent in Maryland with guns. My own work in the probate records of six Maryland counties from the years 1650 to 1720, ignored by Belesiles, shows an average of 76 percent of young fathers owning arms of some sort”. Ira D. Gruber of Rice slides the bayonet into Bellsiles with incredulous harrumphs about misrepresented evidence on casualty rates in American and European battles (“But Bellesiles has counted 18,000 prisoners among the killed and wounded at Blenheim”). In an interesting essay on guns, gun culture and murder in early America Bellesiles is finally dispatched by Randolph of Ohio State (“every rally of homicides Bellesiles reports is either misleading or wrong.”)

To give him credit, Bellesiles falls with some dignity (“Arming America is admittedly tentative in its statistics”) but fall he does. Now Emory is making nasty noises, and erstwhile allies are fleeing into the hills. Morgan, who whooped him up in the New York Review, says he’s rethinking. Gary Wills says he’s too busy now to address the matter, which is pretty light-hearted, considering that Bellesiles’ phony scholarship is as devastating a blow as the anti-gun crowd has sustained in decades of fighting over the Second Amendment. (I speak contentedly as the owner of a 12-gauge and .22 who supports the interpretation of the amendment as upholding individual rights to bear arms.)

What about Knopf, which published Arming America. Jane Garrett tells Postel that the house “stands behind” Bellesiles, that his were not intentional errors but the result of some “over-quick research”. Knopf is renowned for its cookbooks. Suppose Bellesiles had suggested putting dried Amanita phalloides into the risotto. I don’t think Garrett would be so forgiving.











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