Saturday, July 31, 2010

Sloppy scholarship

Nothing Like It In the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869I started reading a book last night penned by one of America's best known "historians," Stephen E. Ambrose. The book, Nothing Like It in the World, is a description of the construction of the transcontinental railway from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to Sacramento, California. I'm not very far into it, but it's definitely readable. It's the first of Ambrose's books I've read (I managed somehow to escape Undaunted Courage, his book about the Lewis and Clark expedition), but I can see why he managed to turn histories into best sellers. Ambrose is good with words.

Too bad he's not as good with his scholarship. I've already run into something that helps explain some of the scorn I've heard expressed by academicians regarding Ambrose's books. I know the Civil War isn't his area (Eisenhower and World War II were his first big love), but even I know that saying Shiloh was Grant's first victory is flatout wrong. But that's what Ambrose does -- apparently his vast herd of minions, the various people serving as his researchers (which appears to be his extended family, i.e., his adult children), somehow managed to skip right over Fort Donelson.  The fall of Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland opened the way south, as well as providing a tremendous morale boost to the Union. 

I hate finding bloopers like this in books, especially really early on in a book. Nothing Like It in the World is sufficiently interesting that I'm going to keep reading, but Ambrose's slip regarding Grant and  Shiloh means I'm now going to be a little bit skeptical about everything he describes.    


  1. Had the same experience with Jared Diamond's Collapse. Once you find a blooper regarding a topic you know well, you say, "What other errors are in here that I'm not catching?"

    As much as I resist it, sometimes I find myself lining up with the academics and thinking, "If it's not your field, stay the hell out."

  2. I understand what you mean, but in my own way. It's not typos or scholarship (I don't read much nonfiction these days), but when something in a novel or short story sounds wrong. Unlike the data that support scholarship, I don't have anything to back up my feelings, but it's there and I have to deal with it as I decide whether or not to carry on and read the book through to the end.

  3. I agree. It does ruin a book to an extent when you find these errors, even in fiction set in an area you know well.

  4. they really want to shock and awe us? mention the ones that aren't on the take from some lobbyist or some company...


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