A Brief History of Ghostwriting

[The American Prospect]

In the May issue of The American Prospect, I’ve got an essay on the long, distinguished history of political ghostwriting. A few recent books have touched on this subject, including Robert Schlesinger’s White House Ghosts and Ben Yagoda’s Memoir: A History, but it’s a rich one. My essay, for example, mentions Doris Kearns Goodwin only in passing, but there’s a lot more story to tell.

In fact, Rick Perlstein told it wonderfully in a 2002 essay for the Village Voice. That publication’s notorious website swallowed the essay long ago, but you can still find it via the Wayback Machine. It’s worth reading in full—not only as the best thing written about Goodwin’s plagiarism fiasco, but also as a great meditation on the act of writing history. Here’s a sample:

Historians must write in the grip of an abiding fear. Composing a paragraph one imagines two audiences: the everyreaders, and the three or four people who know more about what you are writing in a particular paragraph than you do, who have read any book you’re inclined to plagiarize, who, for God’s sake, may have written the book you’re inclined to plagiarize. . . . My book is about the 1964 Barry Goldwater election. And the thought of a midnight knock on my door from this guy named John Kessel (who may or may not still be alive), who published a fine academic study in 1968 called The Goldwater Coalition: Republican Strategies in 1964, accusing me of doing him any dishonor, sends chills down my spine.

I’ll add here that, in an age when plagiarists blame their sins on computers and mixed up research files, it’s fun to read Goodwin preaching about reform through “modern technology.” “I now rely on a scanner, which reproduces the passages I want to cite,” Goodwin promises. “I keep my own comments on those books in a separate file so that I will never confuse the two again.” Maybe more relevant to my Prospect essay is the reliance of Goodwin (and plenty of other pop historians) on research assistants. As of 2002, Goodwin employed four—what’s the best term here? Ghostreaders?


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