Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Birthday books: remembering Mr World War II

The author Stephen Ambrose (1936-2002) was born on this day. Henry Bemis Books celebrates his memory:

Ambrose, Stephen, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West (Simon & Schuster, 1st ed, 1st printing, 1996). LOC 0-684-81107-3. Octavo, 507 pp. Hardcover, unclipped dust jacket, fine condition. 511 pages. Ambrose’s most popular book, UNdaunted Courage spent 126 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list and earned the author over $4 million by itself. It stands as the best one-volume book written about the Lewis And Clark Expedition of 1803-1806. Illustrated with drawings, maps, a notes section and bibliography.  Scarce in the first edition and more so in this exceptionally nice condition! HBB price: $75 obo.

Ambrose, Stephen, Lewis & Clark: Voyage of Discovery (National Geographic Society, 1st. ed, 1998; Bicentennial Edition, 2006).  ISBN 0-7922-6473-8.  Stunning recounting of the 1804-1806 expedition, with photographs by Sam Abell from the film version. Hardcover, 11” x 10” folio. Out of print. Unclipped dust jacket, very good condition. HBB price: $30 obo.

Son of Navy doctor, Ambrose intended to go into medicine as well. It irked him to get stuck in a required humanities course called, "Representative Americans," based on biographies of individuals throughout the country's history. The professor said that the students would be completing their own biography of an unknown Wisconsinite, which they would have to use primary research from the state historical society to write. The result, the professor promised, would add to the sum of the world's knowledge.

"And that just hit me like a sledgehammer," Ambrose later said. "It had never before occurred to me that I could add to the sum of the world's knowledge." He changed his major to history, and at the end of the term wrote a 10-page biography of a Civil War-era one-term Wisconsin Congressman named Charles Billinghurst. Ambrose marveled that he was now the world's leading expert on Charles Billinghurst. "Now what I soon learned was, the reason for that was that nobody else cared about Charles A. Billinghurst," Ambrose laughed. But his next epiphany was what transformed him from a historian to a world-class storyteller: "But I can make 'em care if I tell the story right."

Ambrose spent his career as a history professor, mostly at the University of New Orleans. Early on, he landed a place editing the papers of President Eisenhower for publication; he and Ike hit it off and Ambrose was selected to write the authorized biography. 

The-two volume work won critical praise and led to another solid, three-volume life of Ike’s vice president, Richard Nixon. Toward the end of his career, Ambrose branched out into Lewis & Clark studies. A chance encounter with some World War II veterans led him to publish an oral history of D-Day in 1994.

Ambrose found he’d hit the Historical Anniversary Jackpot. An engaging screen presence, he was soon a regular in war documentaries and a consultant to movies like Saving Private Ryan. His publisher pressed him for more books, on anything. He leveraged his royalties to create research centers, endow a chair for that professor who’d changed his career course; and even create a National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

By 2001 Stephen Ambrose Inc was making an estimated $3 million a year, and critics went after his last works for cut-and-paste, sometimes unattributed, scholarship. Ambrose dismissed his critics as the sort who scorn popular, rather than leaden academic, histories, and note he’d spent decades on a professor's’ salary, and it was time to provide for his family while he could.

As it turned out Ambrose was right: He was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lung cancer and died at 66.

#StephenAmbrose #Lewis&Clark #FirstEditions #HenryBemisBooks #Charlotte

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