Joseph J. Ellis

By Marie Arana
Sunday, January 18, 2009

When Joseph Ellis was 17, his father, a secret service officer in Washington, took him to witness the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. Walking the district's streets, the elder Ellis pointed at the manhole covers. That's what we have to watch, he told his son. There, under the surface, beneath what you already see.

His father's career had brought the Ellises to Washington, and his work as an agent minding Eisenhower ensured they would stay, but a fatal alcoholism took him before he could learn of his son's accomplishments: The younger Ellis grew up to mind presidents in a very different way.

Today, Joseph Ellis is one of America's most widely read historians, a prodigiously gifted storyteller who has won, among many laurels, the 2001 Pulitzer Prize (for Founding Brothers) and the 1997 National Book Award (for American Sphinx).

He was not a particularly good student at Gonzaga High School, but he credits four years of Latin and three of Greek for developing his abilities as a writer. He went on to study philosophy at William and Mary, heading for a career in law, helping to pay his tuition by managing a crew of summer lifeguards. By the time he graduated, however, he was fatherless "and pretty much alone." Unable to afford law school, he took a scholarship to study history at Yale.

Ellis feared history was not his calling when he found himself among graduate students whose knowledge was far greater than his own. One of his professors, C. Vann Woodward -- a renowned historian of the South -- counseled him, "Others here may know stuff you don't know. But you can learn it. What you know, they can never learn." Ellis stuck with it, earned his Ph.D in 1969 and decided to trade his ROTC status for a stint in the army, teaching American history at West Point.

Since then, Ellis has been a professor and dean (even acting president) of Mount Holyoke College, where he has written all nine of his books. In 2001, a controversy flared when the Boston Globe revealed that he had claimed to serve as a soldier on the ground in Vietnam, when, in truth, he had never gone overseas. Ellis made a public apology, and Mount Holyoke suspended him for a year. In 2005, the college restored his endowed chair.

The incident seems to have had scant effect on his productivity. His recent book American Creation (2007), which details events between 1775-1803, was praised by Gordon S. Wood as having "the same captivating colloquial style for which he is famous, and the same clarity of exposition." His forthcoming First Family (2010) promises to plumb the egalitarian marriage between John and Abigail Adams.

Here is a historian, after all, who watches the manholes: there, under the surface, beneath what we already see.

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