Monday, February 11, 2008

A Historical Liar

I realize that the majority of our readers and contributors have a great deal of admiration for the work of historian Joseph Ellis, so this posting may be a bit disappointing. I have to admit that I was very upset to learn about Ellis's truth-telling problems.

The New York Times, along with several other news agencies, broke the news that Joseph Ellis outright lied about his involvement with the Vietnam War. As a result, Ellis was put on academic leave without pay for over a year. In their article The Lies of Joseph Ellis, the New York Times points out that Ellis made the claim that he was deeply involved in the Vietnam War, where he parachuted into the country, and was involved in many armed conflicts with the enemy. The truth, however, was that Ellis never even left the states during his time in the military. In fact, he was safe and sound in his snug little office at West Point, teaching American history to the cadets (a far cry from parachuting into enemy territory and exchanging bullets).

Historian Bonnie Goodman of the History News Network also wrote a piece on Ellis, entitled Has Scandal Taken Its Toll On Ellis? In her article, Goodwin suggests that Ellis lost an incredible amount of credibility within the historical community for his blatant falsehoods. After all, how can a historian be trusted with their work, when it is discovered that they blatantly lied to their students?

Ellis, whose lies became public in 2001, has noticed a dramatic drop in public support for his work. After his Pulitzer Prize winning book Founding Brothers was published in 2000, Ellis was riding on the clouds of the historical community. After his lies were discovered in 2001, however, Ellis has been engaged in a futile attempt to earn back the trust he lost from his comrades. His subsequent books, His Excellency and American Creation have received much less praise from the historical community. The general public, however, seems to be oblivious of Ellis's errors. For the most part, Ellis still remains one of the best selling history writers in America. The scholastic community obviously feels otherwise. Though he is likely to keep selling books to the general public, it is doubtful that Ellis will ever receive another major award due to this scandal.


Brad said...

I actually heard about this in my undergrad. I was on an Ellis "binge" when my professor told me the bad news. Ellis's public apology is even more surprising. He never really apologized. Instead he suggested that historians often get caught up in past events during their research, and may actually feel that they were present when the event actually ocurred. So is Ellis living in a dream world?

Despite the lying (which was a huge mistake that will tarnish his career from here on out), I have to admit that I will continue to read and enjoy what Ellis has to write. He's simply too good of a historian to just toss aside!

Brian Tubbs said...

I find Joseph Ellis' work to be informative. Founding Brothers is his best -- definitely worthy of the Pulitzer. However, I was not as impressed with His Excellency.

There is a tone of smugness and self-indulgence in some of Ellis' writing, and I think Brad is right that Ellis (at least to some extent) lives in a dream world.

Steve Becknall said...

Though I agree with Brad and Brian when it comes to Ellis being a valuable writer, I still have to question his integrity. I have read the articles regarding Ellis's lies and feel that his scholarship is definitly in question. After all, how can you trust somebody that lied about their involvement in Vietnam? This makes me question his approach to writing history as well. is he "tweaking" his sources? One can only wonder.

Lindsey Shuman said...

I have to agree with Steve. As much as I have loved Ellis over the years, I will never be able to fully trust his work ever again. Brian makes a good point when he mentions the fact that Ellis injects his work with an element of smugness. Perhaps this is the reason he felt justified in lying.

Brad said...

I guess I can understand the desire to question everything Ellis has written. I have to say, however, that lying to your students and the public about your military service, though truly an act of stupidity, does not constitute a general disregard for everything Ellis has done. My guess is that you don't win the Pulitzer Prize through deceit (but I could be wrong).

I for one am willing to give Ellis a pass. After all, how many people have never lied to make themselves look better? Ellis is no doubt paying the price for his misdeeds. I doubt we will ever see his name on a major historical award again. I do believe, however, that he can still contribute a great deal to our understanding and appreciation of history. He has an exceptional mind for historical understanding, which is a rare talent to have.

David Mabry said...

Ellis has paid for his dishonesty. Not only has his repuation suffered as has been pointed out but he was suspended without pay for a year from his faculty position at Mount Holyoke. I think that he has paid enough. I like all of his work, particularly His Excellency and the Creation, I have learned from both. I appreciate his approach to his work and the presentation to his readers. He explains his rationale and thread of thought, which for a general readership is very necessary for their understanding.

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