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April 19, 2010, 4:14 pm

When students have asked me about Stephen Ambrose and using his books for research papers, until recently, I’ve laid out the plagiarism issues with his later works, and warned against using them. His early works, I told them, seem reasonably reliable, but they should retain a residual wariness of them. This sometimes sounded overly harsh; condemning a man’s life work for later failings. I wish it had been:

Nonfiction writers who succumb to the temptations of phantom scholarship are a burgeoning breed these days, although most stop short of fabricating interviews with Presidents. But Stephen Ambrose, who, at the time of his death, in 2002, was America’s most famous and popular historian, appears to have done just that.

I should be more surprised, but I’m not. What had appeared the failings of a historian overwhelmed by the popularity of his works and the demand for more, now seems–if this evidence is accurate–to be the lifelong betrayal of his discipline.

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