Nearly a decade after his fall from grace, controversial Arming America author Michael Bellesiles is back with a new book: 1877: America’s Year of Living Violently, set to be published by New Press in August. But just how forgiving will book buyers will be toward the historian? Already this week New Press is catching flak for its assertion in press materials that the author was “swiftboated" by pro-gun forces seeking to discredit Arming America. “If a major commercial press wants to help a disgraced figure make his comeback, that is one thing,” Scott McLemee wrote this week in on Inside Higher Ed. “But rewriting history is another. The New Press published many excellent books by important authors. It is out of respect for that record that I want to invite it to make a public apology for violating the trust its readers have in it.”
In 2001, Arming America was a national bestseller when questions arose over Bellesiles’s sources. The questions intensified, and Bellesiles was eventually forced to resign his position at Emory University after a damaging report from fellow historians questioned his academic integrity. His publisher Knopf walked away from the book, and for the first time in history the prestigious Bancroft Prize was revoked. Bellesiles is now an adjunct lecturer at Central Connecticut State University. To this day, the author maintains that his thesis in Arming America remains sound, even if there were problems with his sources. In 2003, the book was republished by Soft Skull Press, with a spirited defense by the author.
In his new work, 1877: America's Year of Living Violently, Bellesiles purports to detail a transformative year in American history, when the United States was “gripped by a deep depression,” and in the throes of “nearly unimaginable violence and upheaval,” including a contested presidential election, white supremacist mobs, and a railroad strike. In the author bio on Amazon.com, Bellesiles is billed as a “celebrated historian” who has been “vilified, many think unfairly,” and claims this book will “reestablish his reputation.”
It remains to be seen, however, whether Bellesiles can win redemption with a new book—if found to be solid, and well-researched—or whether his past transgressions with Arming America will haunt him. Contacted by the History News Network, Ohio State historian Randolph Roth said he hoped Bellesiles’ new book would be “judged on its merits,” but said he was disappointed by the tone of the publicity campaign thus far from New Press. “Bellesiles may indeed have been the target of the NRA’s ire, but he was not ‘swift-boated’ by anyone,” Roth observed. “The evidence, quantitative and qualitative, undid Arming America.” Meanwhile, the HNN this week also published a piece written by Bellesiles on the new book.
Certainly, as the press reaction so far shows not only will Bellesiles’s new book be the subject of intense scrutiny, so too will every statement made by the author—and his publisher. On the Volokh Conspiracy blog, Eugene Volokh conceded that the new book itself might prove to be sound. “Bellesiles suffered amply (though rightly) for his misconduct,” Volokh writes. “It’s good that he’s getting a second chance.” He called the publicity letter and the swiftboating charge, however, “inaccurate,” and “unfortunate,” noting that he would not have dredged up the Emory report criticizing Bellesiles again, if not for that letter. Of course, that’s why they call it publicity.