Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Everything I Know I Learned from Stephen Ambrose

This week marks what would have been the seventy-fourth birthday of historian and biographer Stephen Ambrose (January 10, 1936-October 13, 2002).

I really can't tell you when I first encountered Mr. Ambrose through his writing. I'd always been a reader of history and biographies, so I guess it was only natural that I read this most popular of non-fiction writers. And once I started, I was hooked. This man combined rigorous research and well-chosen anecdotes with the art of a storyteller. I'd never encountered such wit and sparkle in history before. He didn't just make history real for me. He made it matter.

When I was researching my early reader biography of Sacagawea (SACAGAWEA, Lerner Books, 2009), it was Ambrose's UNDAUNTED COURAGE I turned to again and again. If you've ever tried to slog your way through the original Lewis and Clark journals, you know that they can be, ahem, dense. The spelling and punctuation are irregular, the phrasing antique, the meaning frequently just out of my eager grasp. It was Dr. Ambrose who sorted out the tangled threads of the narrative for me and rewove them into that most wonderful of creations, a story. For that is what the journals were above all, a fascinating story of adventure, heroism, and drama. I only needed help to see it. That is what I wish for my own readers, that I can help sort out for them the details of a life and find the essential story that is biography.

What was Dr. Ambrose's secret? What made him America's favorite historical storyteller? I think the key is found in his own life. It seems that he entered college as a pre-med major. But his first college-level class in American history changed his mind. "I went to the registrar that afternoon and changed my major, and never looked back," he said later. Ambrose had found his passion.

And that is what I wish for us all.

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