When the movie improves on history

Posted: Jun 20, 2002 12:00 AM
It's been a rough few years for historians. The higher the rung, the greater the fall. Plagiarism infected the works of superstar authors Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose. Both are prolific writers who fell prey to pressures of time, sloppy researchers, careless rewrites and history as big business, all of which interrupted their 20 minutes of academic celebrity. More serious charges have been leveled against Michael Bellesiles, professor of history at Emory University, whose "Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture," published in 2000, was hailed as containing enough scholarly ammunition to shoot down the National Rifle Association. Columbia University gave it a prestigious prize. The New York Times graced it with the acclaim most historians only fantasize about. But when critics couldn't find the cited sources in the footnotes and other claims appeared to be unsubstantiated, the work failed to prove its sensational claims that few of the early American colonists owned firearms. Emory University is now investigating whether the author invented documents, which is even worse on the ethical scale of history-writing than offering someone else's words as your own. The National Rifle Association may be safe after all. While these high-profile cases get magnified public attention, another kind of disease may be afflicting the study of history, and one harder to treat. In fact, you'll need the lens of a powerful microscope to get it into focus. Fortunately, the microscope is available. In its current issue, the New Criterion, a journal edited by Hilton Kramer, which prides itself on exposing "intellectual mendacity," examines two different books with a lens that brings out the hidden pictures that contain falsehoods. One of the volumes under its microscope is the "Encyclopedia of the American Left," published by Oxford University Press. It was selected by Choice and Library Journal as one of the 10 best reference books published in 1990. A second edition appeared in 1998. The other book under scrutiny is John Steinbeck's famous "Grapes of Wrath," about a displaced Oklahoma farming family confronting dust, death and destruction in America of the 1930s. Paul Buhle, co-editor with his wife of the encyclopedia, is a popular professor of American civilization at Brown University. He's well known for studying and sympathizing with American radicals as well as making brazen statements. He characterizes Harry Truman as "America's Stalin" and all our presidents in the second half of the 20th century as "jerks," with, naturally, Ronald Reagan, the "jerkiest of all." His sympathies would be unimportant in the encyclopedia if he scrupulously presented the facts, but that's the rub. His critics are discovering "falsification and obfuscation" in the encyclopedia's assertions. For example, it claims that American communists were prominent in fighting and dying on behalf of Israel in its war of independence against the Arabs in 1948, but documentation is lacking, and more than one scholar has called the notion nonsense. The second edition of the encyclopedia is grossly misleading when it discusses the new revelations over the huge subsidies the Soviets gave to American communists. "Reference books are expected to summarize the scholarly consensus and to present reliable information," write Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes. Yet the distortions in the encyclopedia have generally gone unchallenged by historians. It may take time, but probing academics will, no doubt, set the record straight. The case of the Steinbeck novel is less clear-cut because the book has become a myth of the American experience in the 1930s. Fiction has a way of creating indelible history in the public mind with greater force than historical texts. Homer and Shakespeare are splendid illustrations of that point. Steinbeck is no Homer or Shakespeare, but he intersperses fictional chapters with historical passages reporting on political, economic and social conditions as though he's informed. "Unfortunately for the reputation of the author, however," writes Keith Windschuttle, "there is now an accumulation of sufficient historical, demographic and climatic data about the 1930s to show that almost everything about the elaborate picture created in the novel is either outright false or exaggerated beyond belief." An ambitious English teacher who assigns "Grapes of Wrath" might challenge students to evaluate the new historical evidence and show the specific way it alters the interpretation of the novel. The movie "Grapes of Wrath," directed by John Ford, is probably most responsible for turning the human drama of the novel into high art. Whittaker Chambers, an ex-communist himself, writing in Time magazine in 1940, got it right. "'The Grapes of Wrath' is possibly the best picture ever made from a so-so book," he wrote. "Camera craft purged the picture of the editorial rash that blotched the Steinbeck book." This is one time it might be better to see the movie.