Stephen Ambrose is officially screwed. A politician might be able to survive a plagiarism scandal, but a historian? As examples of unattributed direct quotations throughout Ambrose’s work continue to turn up, Ambrose’s work — more oral history than academic research, and, according to this Ambrose-bashing article I found linked on Talking Points, endlessly recycled — Ambrose’s career is going up in flames. I think, as Mickey Kaus puts it, "Ambrose’s best defense may be ‘I don’t really write my books.’" Ambrose, like Tom Clancy or James Michener, employed a bevy of researchers. I’m not sure that it would salvage his reputation to be revealed as someone who relied on ghostwriters, but wouldn’t that be better than being a thief? Dishonesty involving authorship is one of the banes of academia (not so much for the for the real-estate professional). Eugene Garfield, founding editor of The Scientist, tackles the issues of ghostwriting and attribution in an essay on originality. The questions, in the abstract, are complex. If an editor’s revisions have substantially altered a manuscript (as Maxwell Perkins did to Look Homeward, Angel or Ezra Pound did to "The Waste Land"), Garfield asks, is it still entirely the author’s work? If a technical publication’s editors have to turn engineer-speak into more readable prose, are they serving as ghostwriters? Given that professional standing in the sciences and in academia often rests on questions of authorship, these are clearly major concerns for Garfield.
Outside the realm of academia, ghostwriting can still provide stumbling blocks. It seems to work just fine if the original author is dead: V.C. Andrews still manages to crank out bestsellers thanks to her ghostwriter (link via Jerry Kindall, long ago) and everyone seems perfectly content with the arrangement (although Ms. Andrews could not be reached for comment). Consider, however, the dispute over Nancy Drew. Nancy Drew, along with the Hardy Boys, the Rover Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, the X Bar X Boys, and other series characters, was created by Stratemeyer Syndicate, the brainchild of prolific turn-of-the-century children’s author Edward Stratemeyer, who found himself able to invent scenarios and series faster than he could write them. Stratemeyer hired a stable of ghostwriters and published each series under the name of a single, fictional author, leaving the true authorship of Nancy Drew open to dispute for decades. Harriet Adams — Stratemeyer’s daughter, as well as an editor for and eventual head of the syndicate — claimed for years to be the real Caroline Keene. Ilana Nash’s capsule biography of Adams notes that she "interpreted the word ‘writing’ to mean more than strictly the production of a manuscript," and after Adams’ death in 1982 Mildred Benson stepped forward to be counted. Benson, an author and journalist who had been a professional writer for almost seventy years, received her rightful acclaim in 1993, when it was acknowledged that she had written the earliest Nancy Drew books, but the syndicate system seems guaranteed to produce bitterness in authors who receive little monetary compensation and less public acclaim for their work.
Is it better to be a ghostwriter for a poltician, perhaps? Nobody’s quite sure who wrote and researched what in John Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, but someone won a Pulitzer. Malcolm Moos, who coined the phrase "military-industrial complex" for Eisenhower, eventually got his due. And John Jay, who helped craft George Washington’s farewell address was a Chief Justice. And even today some ghostwriters have gone on to share their talents with a larger and presumably more appreciative world: Pat Buchanan, Peggy Noonan, Ben Stein, Barbara Walters. On reflection, perhaps it would be best to set the Stephen Ambrose book aside and pick up the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant — he was a mediocre president, but they make for great reading. And he wrote them all by himself.