17 November 2005 by Published in: Civil War books and authors 14 comments

Dimitri Rotov had a fascinating round-up of the reviews of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new book on his blog yesterday. One, in particular, jumped off the page at me.

“Goodwin and company have little new to tell us and stick to the standard fare. Most of the familiar Lincoln stories are here — from the suggestion from a young girl that he grow a beard to his attitude about Ulysses Grant’s drinking.” She does introduce this novelty, the reviewer says: “Goodwin describes the scene when an aide to Stanton visits Lincoln’s office to ask a question: Lincoln greeted him. ‘What’s up?’ Really? What’s up with that?” This review came from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which is a pretty decent newspaper.

This brings me back full circle to an issue I have addressed at some length: the propensity for some historians to just make stuff up when it suits them to do so. Clearly Doris Kearns Goodwin, who used to have a great deal of credibility as an historian, has taken such liberties here. I can imagine a lot of things that Abe Lincoln might have said. “What’s up?” is definitely NOT one of them. I’ve already addressed the issue of Tom Carhart simply making up conversations in one of my very first posts on this blog and don’t see the need to beat that poor dead horse here again. I’ve also addressed the issue of intellectual dishonesty here as well, and won’t repeat that, eiher.

Suffice it to say that what Goodwin did here, while perhaps pleasant reading, is just as intellectually dishonest as plagiarism, which, by the way, she’s also been accused of. That matter was recently settled by her. Call me a purist, but I simply cannot fathom holding these sorts of authors in high esteem, but it happens. I just don’t get it.

For a really interesting perspective on these issues, I recommend Prof. Thomas Mallon’s excellent book Stolen Words, which is sort of a history of plagiarism from the perspective of a fiction writer who has obviously spent a lot of time considering this issue. Read that, and then consider the writings of Joseph Ellis, Stephen Ambrose, Tom Carhart, and Doris Kearns Goodwin and see what you think then.

I’ve always tended to lean in precisely the opposite direction. This is undoubtedly my legal training coming through, but I was taught to footnote anything that is not an original thought, and that’s precisely what I do. My book The Union Comes of Age has well over 1,000 endnotes in it. Why? Because I am fanatical about giving credit where it’s due. And, if I speculate about something–make something up, if you will–I always come right out and say that I am speculating.

Otherwise, I would be guilty of precisely the same intellectual dishonesty that I have lambasted so loudly here.

Scridb filter


  1. Cash
    Thu 17th Nov 2005 at 6:10 pm


    Much of what you say is right on; however, Joseph Ellis wasn’t accused of plagiarism. He was accused of claiming in class he was a Vietnam Veteran when in fact he wasn’t.


  2. Dave Kelly
    Thu 17th Nov 2005 at 6:20 pm

    Your point is well taken, although the example may not be to the point.

    A poster rejoined Mr Rotov and suggests that the catch phrase What’s Up was probably in vogue at the period. I’m not sure exactly when English writers started making contractions chic. I think it was actually as early as George IV. Lincoln loved humor and the silly word play jokes of the time.
    Are we to believe Lincoln didn’t sport with “low culture” when we know it was part of his charm? (Perhaps Mr Rotov confuses “What’s Up” with What’s Up, Doc (Bugs Bunny), and Wazzz Uppp!? A ghetto salutation which apparently has roots further back in americana ๐Ÿ™‚

    Back to what the distinguished Mr Wittenberg was really intending to say before interjecting the dubious example of the wing pulling Mr Rotov ( ๐Ÿ˜‰ ),
    there is a difference between critical academic standards and popular books. You take the academic high road.

    Some prefer selling 69,000 copies of lowballs to yuppies who don’t read endnotes.

  3. Thu 17th Nov 2005 at 7:18 pm


    My point precisely. Thanks for making it for me.


  4. Thu 17th Nov 2005 at 8:14 pm


    Thanks for the clarification. I was working from memory on the Ellis thing.


  5. Vince Slaugh
    Thu 17th Nov 2005 at 10:35 pm

    I concur with Mr. Kelly’s comment. “What’s up” had a place in the lexicon of Billy Yank, if not all of mid-nineteenth century America. For example, the expression was used as we use it today by A. F. Hill in his dialogue-heavy memoir Our Boys (p. 351) published in 1864. (I was so suprised at some of the expressions he used that I wrote them down.) Hill served in the 8th Pennsylvania Reserves and was wounded in the Cornfield at Antietam. Also, a search using Google Print (sorry!) reveals another couple instances of the phrase’s usage between 1850 and 1870.

    That said, I know that wasn’t the point of Mr. Rotov’s post and doesn’t justify the usage in question, but just thought I’d throw it out there anyway.

    Thanks again for your posts. I read ’em all.
    Vince Slaugh

  6. Thu 17th Nov 2005 at 10:46 pm

    Okay. We can all agree that “what’s up” had a place in the lexicon, and that it’s plausible that Lincoln in fact might have said that. I agree.

    However, that’s not Dimitri’s point and it’s also not my point, either.

    My point is that making things up–inventing conversations that never took place, as one example–is intellectually dishonest and that I cannot condone such conduct.

    That was my point.


  7. Fri 18th Nov 2005 at 3:40 pm


    I’m just curious (because I haven’t read the book and I don’t plan to), but how do Dimitri and yourself know that this conversation was made up? Does Kearns mention that she does this in the book, or is a source not mentioned? Or do you know it is made up for some other reason?

    Brett S.

  8. Fri 18th Nov 2005 at 7:02 pm

    I am often surprised that so many expressions used in CW letters, diaries, etc are not the modern slang we suppose them to be. I just read an artillerists’ account and he used the expression “let ‘er rip” when he pulled the lanyard.


  9. Fri 18th Nov 2005 at 8:59 pm


    Haven’t read it. I was going by what was on Dimitri’s blog. Candidly, I doubt I will, either. I have too much piled up on my nightstand already.


  10. Dave Kelly
    Sat 19th Nov 2005 at 9:40 am

    This is too funny. An inocuous example of grievence is suckering people into buying a book they protest against, to check footnotes (LOL)

    On point I have had several furious conversations about Gettysburg Day 3 brought on by the fact that several otherwise distinguished writers have decided that they can complete the staff process of Lee’s HQs in the absence of any historical record. “Lee must have done this because it’s the rational process for command and control implied by what people suggest they knew of their orders. ” Baloney. Where’s the evidence that nails down Lee’s command and intent?

  11. Sat 19th Nov 2005 at 2:19 pm

    I honest can’t think of a single good reason to read Goodwin’s book.

  12. Sat 19th Nov 2005 at 2:19 pm

    honestly….that is

  13. Sat 19th Nov 2005 at 11:04 pm

    Dave and Drew,

    I’m with you, guys.


  14. Brian Santiso
    Tue 20th Dec 2005 at 3:54 pm

    I’ve been surfing over here for only a few days and I haven’t read this whole thread through, but I have to say I love footnotes. I’m a huge Gettysburg buff and I’ve learned quite a lot from the footnotes of Pfantz’s and Coddington’s books. The footnotes of their books could be described as books in their own right because of the information they hold. I’ve been reading the OR’s for Gettysburg about a year now and it’s tough going. The reports the soldiers wrote are vague and condradict each other, I lose hours each night trying to study a certain action of the battle but it is great fun. I bet Goodwin found it too slow to research on her own and took a ‘shortcut’. I have to wonder if Goodwin and the rest write just to get on MSNBC rather than write to advance our understanding of something.

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