In recent days, we have been subjected to articles in the national press about a series of lies Joseph Ellis told his students in class at Mount Holyoke, the rustic college in western Massachusetts. While teaching a course on Vietnam, Ellis, a prize-winning historian — and possibly the college's most popular professor — admitted telling numerous and detailed lies about his alleged record as a paratrooper during the Vietnam War.
The records show that Ellis actually spent his entire army service teaching history at West Point.
Ellis also told stories about his student activity at Yale in the protest movements against the war, as well as heroic stories about his skills on his high school football team. (He allegedly made the winning touchdown in the last game of the season.)
It turns out that he was not part of the protests at all, and he was never on his high school football team.
Besides the obvious question — "Why do so many men insist on fabricating a war record for themselves?" — I think there are other unsettling aspects surrounding this case.
Last March, I interviewed Ellis and was very impressed with both the author and the book, "Founding Brothers."
According to Ellis, Jefferson has been too much admired and should be cut down to size as the "most cunning" and duplicitous of the founding brothers, while Adams, his favorite, had not yet gotten his due from historians. Ellis told me, "Jefferson comes out of the story the most discolored, the most tattered."
Then speaking of his own writing style, Ellis said, "I try to craft language in such a way that it is not just clear and cogent, but so that it allows us to appreciate paradox and irony. You want to say things that have lasting quality. The crafting of the language for me is 70 percent of the work."
Ellis also spoke highly of his teaching duties. "I'm teaching the people I try to write for in my books. I try out my own ideas in the classroom with people who are not history specialists. I think that's what history needs to be . . . teaching and scholarship are reinforcing rather than competitive."
Hmmm. So now, we as readers of Ellis' superb books on Thomas Jefferson and the "Founding Brothers," are left to ask ourselves, "If he lied about his personal experiences to students and to radio and TV interviewers, would he also lie about the experiences of famous Colonial Americans?"
I don't know the answer to that question, but there is a cloud in my mind now over Ellis' credibility. I predict that several scholars will re-read Ellis' books, while simultaneously checking his footnotes against his conclusions and his stories about Jefferson, Washington, Adams, Franklin, Madison and others.
After all, "teaching and scholarship reinforce each other."
When Edmund Morris published his controversial biography of Ronald Reagan, "Dutch" (1999), Ellis dismissed it as "a docudrama," primarily "a work of Morris' imagination." Indeed, Morris had injected himself as an imaginary character into Reagan's story.
Ellis was also disturbed that Reagan had often placed himself in movie scripts, which he later retold as if they were true stories about himself.
Now, here was Morris doing the same thing about himself.
Rick Schenkman, the editor of History News Network, cogently summed it up this way: "What we have here, in effect, is a book reviewer who has made up stories about himself criticizing an author who made up stories about himself in a biography about a man who made up stories about himself."