Talking with Joseph J. Ellis
Joseph Ellis writes by hand, which is only one way he remains, as an author and a historian, a traditionalist in an age of specialization and constant technological change. Speaking from his study in Amherst, Massachusetts, the Pulitzer-winning historian (FOUNDING BROTHERS: The Revolutionary Generation) talks about his new book, REVOLUTIONARY SUMMER, which re-creates with striking immediacy and dramatic impact the political and military events of the summer of 1776.
Today the declaration of American independence from Great Britain and the endurance of Washington’s troops seem inevitable, and such hindsight has a principal role in Ellis’s narrative. But he never lets us forget that hindsight imposes “an ex post facto sense of coherence” on what at the time was uncertainty and often confusion.
“I look for information that people don’t know,” Ellis says, “especially readers who aren’t scholars. If you look at the endnotes, most of them are to letters, by Adams, Jefferson, Washington. The advantage I have, at this stage of my life, is that I’ve read all of these. That means that finding the voice--the voice of the character--is easier to do, because you’ve been immersed in these voices.
“I do think of it as a drama with actors,” Ellis confirms, “and recovering their voices and characters is the work of the historian. To provide the perspective on their story, you need to step back--to imagine what that world felt like and develop a more distanced sense of what it looks like from their perspective--in many cases a perspective that was denied. What looks so inevitable to us wasn’t inevitable to them at all--declaring independence. Much of what they did then was improvisational. My writing is an attempt to bring together intimacy and distance in the same paragraph.
“What I tend to also assume--and this is what’s different from what traditional historians offer--is that these are all imperfect groups. They’re like us; they’re not some kind of iconic figures--even Washington, who thought about how everything he did was going to be perceived. Bringing them to life in a fully human way is my goal.”
When we spoke, Ellis hadn’t yet seen a finished copy of his book, or heard the audio production. He’s listened to all the audio productions of his books, but says, deferentially, “There’s an art to reading and reading well that I’m not as good at as they are. I don’t intrude on the process.
“I admire the talent of the readers. Professional readers are like professional actors. They can do things I can’t do, or that I’m not as good at. That way of reading a book, by listening to it, when I was a young man didn’t exist. It’s a form of technology that has enlarged the readership--for serious books in particular.”
A particular pleasure of REVOLUTIONARY SUMMER is its telling, humanizing descriptions of historical figures: Adams’s paunch “like a cannonball,” Jefferson’s huff over changes in his wording of the Declaration of Independence, Franklin’s reluctance to get involved in fractional disputes that might sully his reputation.
“I look for that,” Ellis says. “I’m on the lookout for those kinds of nuggets. I’m aware of the ordinary reader who wants to see these creatures in a close-up way. I would want that.”--David A. Walton
© AudioFile 2013, Portland, Maine
Photo © Erik Jacobs