Last month, historian Joseph Ellis confessed to repeatedly lying to students and journalists about his military service in Vietnam and his participation in the anti-war and civil rights movements. In response, Mount Holyoke College canceled the best-selling author’s popular course on the Vietnam War amid wider calls for the institution to discipline him. The controversy has prompted many observers to wonder not only why so successful a scholar--winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award--would embellish his autobiography, but also why a historian would even feel it necessary to insert himself into the material he chronicles.
But Ellis’ apparent need to be part of the story is not unusual. Over the past three decades, scholars and writers have increasingly injected themselves into their accounts of historical events and persons. Unlike the embattled Mount Holyoke professor, most have remained scrupulously honest. But like Ellis, they have rejected the impersonal, distant voice once associated with dispassionate scholarship and encapsulated in the admonition to students that they never use the personal pronoun “I” in their work. For better or worse, many scholars have joined in a broader American passion for authenticity, falling victim to the same desire for direct, unmediated experience that fuels the national fascination with crime stories “ripped from the headlines” and “reality TV.”
Personal accounts have so thoroughly infiltrated historical scholarship that most academic critics have challenged Ellis’ ethics without questioning his methods. For example, David Garrow, Emory University historian and Martin Luther King Jr. biographer, attacked Ellis’ Vietnam fabrications not because he needlessly featured his own exploits in a course on American history, but because the lies undermined the credibility of first-hand reports like Garrow’s own work on the civil rights movement.
Personal history has become a badge of authenticity. Even chroniclers of long-ago eras and long-dead persons make themselves major characters in their histories and biographies. Historian Stephen Ambrose’s family vacations along the route of Lewis and Clark underlay his efforts to re-create the explorers’ epic journey and their undaunted courage. In “American Sphinx,” Ellis describes his own preoccupation with Thomas Jefferson. As a red-haired Virginian and an alumnus of Jefferson’s alma mater, Ellis had long identified with his subject. His “young love” for the enigmatic Jefferson and later recovery from this “youthful infatuation” illuminate Ellis’ efforts to unravel the tangled legacy of his quarry. Many of the most celebrated histories of the past decade go even further, making the author into the protagonist--the detective wrestling with ambiguous clues and unlocking past mysteries. The last annual meeting of the American Historical Assn. devoted a panel discussion to authors who imaginatively place themselves amid the events they analyze.
The current premium on personal experience grew out of the social and cultural experiments of the 1950s and 1960s. Bristling against the stultifying conformity and daily injustice of American society, artists, activists and intellectuals unleashed a withering assault against the alienation and phoniness of national life. They yearned for a kind of wholeness, an end to the impersonal bureaucratic structures that not only estranged young people from the established norms of American life, but also cut them off from their true selves. The Port Huron Statement of 1962, one of the manifestos of the ‘60s student movement, described the “goal of man” as “a concern not with an image of popularity but with finding a meaning in life that is personally authentic.”
Young documentary filmmakers rejected the heavy-handed style of the 1950s and pioneered a form of direct cinema without voice-over narration, talking heads or a clear point of view. Often they turned the camera on themselves and simply let the story emerge. In popular music, polished crooners like Frank Sinatra, who performed a repertoire of standards written by others, gave way to scraggly singer-songwriters strumming their own compositions with unadorned directness. Reporters like Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe dismissed the canons of journalistic objectivity, becoming leading players in the news they uncovered.
In this heady atmosphere, historians and scholars joined the wider cultural rebellion against impersonal precision. Many academics repudiated the ideal of disinterested scholarship. They castigated as dishonest and presumptuous books that adopted the voice of impartial truth with a capital “T.” Scholars, they believed, could never really check their biases or remove themselves from their work; it was better to highlight the personal point of view than to hide it behind claims of objectivity.
The racial revolutions of the 1960s and ‘70s intensified this desire to personalize to achieve authenticity. The Black Power movement echoed throughout American society, inspiring awareness and militant self-assertion among Latinos, Asian Americans and American Indians. Eventually, it even sparked a revival of white ethnicity. Italian Americans formed their own civil rights league, Jews launched a “freedom ride” on behalf of their Soviet brethren, ethnic festivals proliferated and new programs appeared on campuses. While few universities openly asserted that a professor needed a Spanish surname, a Jewish mother or an Indian ancestor to assess a group’s history, art, or literature, no one doubted that the right bloodlines strengthened a scholar’s claim to the ethnic past. More than one writer with a seemingly white-bread moniker highlighted their ethnic middle name or recovered their lost Cherokee relatives.
Given the premium on personal experience, it is not difficult to imagine why Ellis might feel compelled to place himself at My Lai or in Gen. William Westmoreland’s office, though it does not excuse his repeated lies. In fact, Ellis’ skill at reanimating the lost world of the “Founding Brothers” testifies to writers’ ability to evoke a strange place or a bygone era without direct involvement in their subject. Many historians write deeply personal books without becoming characters in the dramas they narrate. “I was there” accounts may be factually accurate, but no more real than the stilted situations of “Survivor” or “Temptation Island.” In the wake of Ellis’ disgrace, Americans might think twice about true-life stories and value imaginative empathy as much as authentic experience.