The People's Historian Stephen Ambrose and the American Psyche

By Marsh, Charmayne | Humanities, November/December 1998 | Go to article overview

The People's Historian Stephen Ambrose and the American Psyche


Marsh, Charmayne, Humanities


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, sixtytwo, argues that 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?"

As a young historian, Ambrose set out to write a 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 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 thirtyfourth president of the United States.

Ike 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 describes 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 judgment about people and great events.

Ambrose's interest in the explorers Lewis and Clark developed in 1975 when he started reading their journals. …

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