Joseph Ellis: On His Book Tour, He Asks Reporters to Go Easy on Him

Historians in the News

John Marshall, in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (12-7-04):

All seems forgiven, or mostly forgotten, for Joseph J. Ellis.

Three years after he was ensnared in a national embarrassment of his own making, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian is back near the top of the best-seller lists with his latest biographical look at one of the Founding Fathers. Ellis is also the beneficiary of a 20-city national book tour and is basking in a host of favorable reviews for "His Excellency," most of which make no mention of his past travails.

Yet the 61-year-old history professor from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, a genial fellow with distinctly Southern manners, still feels compelled to suggest to an interviewer, "Go easy on me, won't you?"

Ellis is wary of being forced to confront his personal demons in public again. This self-described "historian of imperfection" in others believes he has suffered enough and done enough penance for his own imperfections. His once-stellar reputation was besmirched by personal claims to his college classes and to the media that he had been a combat platoon leader in Vietnam when he was not, that he had been an anti-war leader at Yale when he was not, that he had been active in civil rights campaigns in the South when he was not.

When all these lies were uncovered by a Boston Globe reporter, Ellis was castigated by some historical colleagues ("an act of moral turpitude," said one), suspended for a year without pay by Mount Holyoke, had his prestigious endowed chair taken away and prohibited from again teaching his popular course on the 1960s in which most of his personal lies were told to students.

Ellis immediately apologized for his actions, disappeared from public view, devoted himself to a quiet private period of soul-searching that lasted six months, followed by work on his new biography of Washington.

"I do think the world has moved on," Ellis said during a recent stop in Seattle. "For me, I will never be able to completely forget or remove the stain of my sin. I think most readers and citizens have either forgiven me or don't remember and a lot of my students do not even know about it. What I did was not just a mistake, it was a sin. And the only thing to do with a sin is to confess, do penance and then, after some kind of decent interval, ask for forgiveness. That is what I have done."...

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