Update on “Letters” Citation Flap

8 12 2009

Go here for an update to this post

[UPDATE 12/9/2009: See also here.  It seems the editor still doesn’t “get it” regarding the blogger’s point about the citation in the essay, or the fact that transcriptions – or “extracts”, as he calls them – while perhaps more reliable, are just that, transcriptions and not original correspondence, even if they are written by the original letter writer.  It would appear that some few of the “extracts” in question do include indication of to whom the destroyed letter was addressed.  Here, another historian weighs in.]

Some may argue that the blogger is making a fine point (though I’m sure there are some diehards who will say he’s making no point at all).  Fine or not, it’s a valid point and one with which I think one would be hard pressed to objectively argue against.  Since the blogger in question doesn’t allow comments for his own reasons – no less valid than the reasons I have for allowing them here – feel free to discuss this issue in the comments section to this post.  I received a few emails regarding this kerfuffle, but no comments, which I view as evidence of unwillingness (understandable, I think) of the writers to go “on record”.

Part I

Part III

Part IV



9 responses

8 12 2009
Dave Powell


I’d be happy to go on record.

Actually, I don’t think the point is valid. Sears is not inventing letters or wording, he’s doing what an editor is supposed to do – add context. Nor do I think the idea that McPherson is “ripping off” Sears by attributing that date to the letter has any validity.

Any edited collection of papers requires this kind of contextualization. When editors publish work without doing that, they rightly get taken to task by reviewers.

IMO, this is small-minded nit-picking of details because the blogger doesn’t like either Sears’ or McPherson’s larger conclusions.


8 12 2009
Harry Smeltzer

Personally, I don’t give a whit about who’s involved or what their motivation might be. If this were an undergrad we were talking about, and not McP, I think we’d be pretty hard on him for indicating that he went to the LOC when it appears maybe he didn’t.

I read no criticism of the editor of the McClellan correspondence in any of this. No complaint that he “added context”. The complaint is all with McP.

The fact of the matter is, you can’t go to the LOC and find what McP said he found using the citation given. You won’t find a letter, you won’t find a date, you won’t find from where they were sent, and you won’t find to whom they were sent. [I should add here that I’ve never been to the LOC to view the papers, and am taking the words of the editor in his book and the blogger regarding what they are and are not at face value.] The author of the edited collection should have been credited as the primary source, or at least as a separate source, not merely a supporting, “oh yeah, and” source. That way, all of the caveats relating to the correspondence (which are only transcriptions) and cotextualization would have been part and parcel to the citation. By saying he went to the LOC and viewed correspondence, McP is wrong, because the correspondence is not there. If he did view the LOC documents, he should have explained what they were. The editor of the collection explains this in his notes. The contextualization is the result of the editor’s work, not McP’s. He, the editor, should get credit for it.

Do I think this is an upardonable act of plagiarism? No. Do I think it is sloppy? Sure. Do I think McP saying he went to the LOC and viewed the original documents lends more gravitas to the essay than saying he got it out of a published work? Yep. Do I think McP in fact did not go to the LOC? I don’t know. And I think the seriousness of the issue is dependent upon whether or not he actually did. Of course, he may say he saw them 30 years ago. If so, I doubt he viewed them with the same contextualization provided by the editor.


9 12 2009
Craig Swain

Isn’t the distinction between amateur and professional historian the practice of proper historiography?

I’m not up to speed on all the details, but if this issue indeed lays out like “the blogger” relates, it is bad historiography. Just reminds me of several “do as I say – not as I do” issues from my personal Grad school experience.

Granted, I’ve opted out of the historian career path by choice (not by force) years ago. But I still do my best to color between the lines, taking “Tindall’s Ten Commandments” as a base with a page or two from Storey. As a consumer of history, I frame my reading with those same rules. Books on my night stand generally have two placemarks – one for the content page, and one for the endnotes. Extra points to authors who annotate their bibliography. Sort of relates the story behind the story with regard to the research endeavors, I think.

One must ask if selling a few thousand more books is worth breaking the accepted standards. Maybe so. Once purchased, it is hard to “unpurchase.” Somebody ended up richer in the process.


11 12 2009
Harry Smeltzer


As you know, I don’t use “professional” and “amateur”. Either you are a historian, or you aren’t. If you aren’t one, the best you can do is try to follow good practice as best you know how. If you are one, and put yourself out there as one, then you have to follow the rules. No matter who you are, or who calls you on your transgressions, or what we think of the whistleblower and what he’s “really getting at.”


11 12 2009
Craig Swain

Harry, I agree with you, but there are a number of folks out there who make such distinctions. Just as there are those who make a distinction between “snitch” and “whistleblower” (Or where applicable, “witness for the prosecution”).


11 12 2009
Harry Smeltzer

“Snitch”, “whistleblower”, it’s all the same to me. “Leaker” is another matter altogether, and I think there is no Hell hot enough for them.


21 12 2009
Update #2 on “Letters” Citation Flap « Bull Runnings

[…] some unexpected correspondence when I got home from the gym yesterday.  Here, and subsequently here, I linked to and discussed with my readers certain details of an article written by another […]


23 12 2009
1 07 2010

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: