National Humanities Medal
As one of America’s leading biographers and historians, Stephen E. Ambrose shapes our national memory of great leaders and the important events of our time.
At the core of Ambrose’s phenomenal success in awakening the historical curiosity of the reading public is his simple but straightforward belief that history is more interesting than almost anything because “history is biography. History is about people, what they have done and why, with what effect. The reason biography is the most popular form of nonfiction writing is that nothing is more fascinating to people than people,” Ambrose says.
Now retired, Ambrose taught history for thirty years at the University of New Orleans after graduating from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Ambrose thinks much is lost when academic historians concentrate on social history, movement history, organizational history, or class or race history. Ambrose, sixty-two, argues students and adults still want to know “Who were our leaders? What did they do and how did they do it? What were their strengths and weaknesses, their goals and value structures, their adventures and misadventures?”
During three decades as a historian and a writer, Ambrose has practiced this approach in producing nineteen books while also teaching in New Orleans. After visiting during a spring vacation, “I just fell in love with this old bag of bones of a city,” Ambrose has said of New Orleans.
As a young historian, Ambrose set out to write his second biography about a relatively obscure military figure, Henry Wager Halleck, a Civil War general and Lincoln’s military chief of staff. It was this book on Halleck that led Ambrose to the man with whom he is most closely identified in the public mind: General Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme allied commander in World War II and thirty-fourth president of the United States.
Ike coincidentally admired Halleck and the book sparked the general’s attention. The former president appointed the twenty-seven-year-old Ambrose to edit his papers.
Given this access to Eisenhower’s papers, Ambrose went on to write his highly acclaimed biography of the former president and later several books about Richard Nixon, a man about whom Ambrose has strong opinions, both positive and negative.
Ambrose described Eisenhower as “a perfectly wonderful person: the greatest man I’ve ever known. I just loved him.” Eisenhower, he says, taught him a valuable lesson as a historian: Never question a man’s motives because you never really know the secrets of his heart. This lesson has stood Ambrose well, allowing him to write passionately but without moral judgement about people and great events.
Ambrose’s interest in the explorers Lewis and Clark came in 1975 when he started reading the journals of their expedition. This kindled a lifetime fascination with the men, the political leaders of the day, and the American West. The resulting book was one of his most popular, the best-seller Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. His love for the expedition, the men, and the country they explored still takes him to the West every year. He served as chief consultant to the PBS series on Lewis and Clark produced by Ken Burns.
Undaunted Courage is a striking example of how Ambrose evokes history with literary allusion. He wrote that at the outset of the expedition, “Lewis knew he was stepping into the unknown…He was entering a heart of darkness. Deserts, mountains, great cataracts, warlike Indian tribes — he could not imagine them, because no American had ever seen them. But far from causing apprehension or depression, the prospect brought out his fullest talents. He knew that from now on, until he reached the Pacific and returned, he would be making history…He turned his face west. He would not turn it around until he reached the Pacific Ocean. He stepped forward, into paradise.”
Following the great success of Undaunted Courage, Ambrose turned to the theme of courage as a common virtue among GIs in World War II.
After writing eight books on the Second World War, Ambrose has become increasingly focused on the lives and trials of the American fighting soldier. His latest book, also a best-seller, has brought him an even wider public acclaim.
Citizen Soldiers: the U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany, June 7, 1944-May 7, 1945, tells in graphic reality the horror and experience of total war, not from command headquarters, but from the ground, from the perspective of the GI doing the fighting and the dying. The book had a profound influence on producer Steven Spielberg and the making of Saving Private Ryan, the film he wanted to be the definitive statement about fighting to end the war in Europe. Ambrose, who served as a consultant for the film, argues in the book that the American citizen soldier of World War II overcame fear, inexperience, the mistakes of the high command, and the formidable German army to eventually win the war.
The success of Ambrose’s work may be that it reminds us of the human qualities we aspire to: vision, courage, loyalty, and patriotism. And in the process, his books let us touch those who dedicated their lives towards greater goals.
By Charmayne Marsh