Thursday, August 12, 2010

Bartlett, Tom. "Michael Bellesiles Takes Another Shot." CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION August 2, 2010.

Let's say you spend a dozen years researching a book. It's the first in a planned trilogy, the historical opus you consider your life's work. The book is published to gushing reviews ("stunning," "brilliant," a "tour de force") and becomes a national best seller. You win a big prize. You are living every scholar's dream.

Then it starts to crumble. Troubling flaws are found in your acclaimed work. At first you dismiss your critics as cranks, but as the evidence piles up, you struggle to defend yourself. Your admirers desert you. Your publisher drops you. Your big prize is withdrawn, and you're pressured to leave the faculty job you love. For a moment, you had everything, and then—just like that—it all goes away, plus some.

It's a sad story, yet the man who lived it, Michael A. Bellesiles, doesn't get a lot of sympathy. The book he wrote, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture (Knopf, 2000), claimed to show that until the Civil War, guns were relatively rare in the United States, an argument that incensed gun-rights advocates. They were giddy over his downfall. Once it became impossible to deny that the work contained serious errors, former supporters felt betrayed and rapidly disassociated themselves from the book and its disgraced author. It was hard to tell who hated him more.

Now, nearly eight years later, Mr. Bellesiles is back. His new book, 1877: America's Year of Living Violently (New Press), isn't a contrarian showstopper; instead, it's an anecdotal history of a famously eventful and profoundly bloody year in American history. It's one of several books Mr. Bellesiles has been working on. After years spent figuring out how to recover and move on, the history professor has returned to writing and is feeling more productive than ever.

But will anyone give Mr. Bellesiles a second chance? And, more to the point, does he even deserve one?

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