Historian v. Historian

At some point during my undergraduate career, I took a class on America in the 1960s, taught jointly by Barton Bernstein and Clay Carson.  It was a very popular course, but I dropped out about half-way through the quarter.  I remember iconic 60s music as the students streamed into the lecture hall, setting the mood for whatever was the topic of the day.  Unfortunately, that is pretty much all I recall of the class — but then, I don’t remember as much of those four years as I was convinced I would remember.

Two nights ago, I read a many-page letter from Barton Bernstein to the editor of the Stanford alumni magazine; it was a rebuttal to the front cover feature story of the January/February issue.  The story consisted of excerpts from the memoir of former Stanford University president Richard Lyman on the tumultuous period from 1966 to 1972, when among other things, protesters burned down the Navy ROTC building and took over Encina Hall.  The paragraphs that particularly incensed Bernstein were these:

During the afternoon of April 24 [1970], we had given a garden party at our home on campus for the outgoing and incoming deans of humanities and sciences . . . .  That noon, Professor Barton Bernstein of history had thoughtfully given a White Plaza rally directions for getting to our house, where radicals lined the approaches to shout abuse at arriving guests . . . .  That night I returned from a visit to the police station and was talking with my wife in a bedroom at the back of the house when there was a loud crash. Someone had hurled a big Coca-Cola bottle full of red paint through our kitchen windows, narrowly missing the head of a security guard . . . .

Worse yet, in the morning we discovered two large rocks that had been thrown through an upstairs window . . . .  No one throws rocks through upstairs windows in the middle of the night unless they intend to maim, if not kill, occupants of the house.

And Bernstein’s rebuttal (a fuming history professor on the offensive is an impressive sight):

His uncritically relying upon such memory after nearly 40 years, and especially for people in about their ninth decade, as in the case of the two aged Lymans, seems surprisingly perilous, if not actually reckless in both personal and legal ways. And his relying upon such memory, when he and his wife, by his own report, cannot even remember who gave him/them the (alleged) information on April 24, 1970, seems even riskier and, indeed, even more remarkably irresponsible. And his tying that basically unsourced “memory” to what he defines as an intentionally maiming or killing nighttime attack on April 24, 1970, seems even more reckless—especially because his home address was public knowledge.

Based on my checking about a fifth of Lyman’s book, I can assert, with incontrovertible documentary proof, more than 30 errors in his recent volume. That includes at least five more cases of plagiarism, a few surprising mistakes on ex-President Pitzer’s pre-Stanford background, confusion on at least five people’s names, and quite a few marred, massaged or mangled quotations. Collectively, all that, especially with the book’s repeated plagiarism (presumably unintentional by Lyman) is stunning and dismaying.

Stunning and dismaying, indeed, because Richard Lyman, like Barton Bernstein, is a historian.  He, of all people, should have known that that just because a book is a memoir does not exempt it from basic fact-checking.  Memory is constructed — this is one of those lessons hammered into history graduate students from day one.  Construction and reconstruction allows one to identify with, and understand, the past, but it is the boring laundry list of people and dates and places that provide the order and framework  for ruminations and reflections on the events of a lifetime.  Lyman owns his memories and the interpretation of those memories, but a history created from faulty memories is something else: it is a myth.

Opie v. Opie
Opie v. Opie
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