Historian and writer Stephen Ambrose died on Sunday, October 13th, 2002. A longtime smoker, Ambrose was diagnosed with lung cancer in May.
His bestsellers include Citizen Soldiers, Band of Brothers, and Undaunted Courage. He was an advisor for Saving Private Ryan, and was devoted to his work as a storyteller who kept history vital for all Americans.
I was very sad to hear about Ambrose's death. American culture has lost a unique voice with a commendable approach to writing about history. He used primary sources - correspondence of soldiers, for example, and their journals - to tap into the heart-vein of the times and events he wrote about. He deftly navigated the perils of primary source historiography with clean analysis written in highly engaging and accessible prose. He brought excellent scholarship and strong writing to work which he intended to be useful and enriching for everyone, not just the ivoried elite of academia.
Ambrose's reputation came under fire when he was accused of plagiarism by a number of reporters who discovered use of their prose, sans quotation marks, in his books. Ambrose's apology did little to off-set the impact of this revelation, as he restrained himself to a mild mea culpa about his failure to put the material in quotation marks, while pointing out that it was still fully cited in his endnotes and sources (which is how investigative reporters tracked down the material in the first place).
The impact and importance of his work should not be shadowed by his few failures to use appropriate punctuation on 10 out of 15,000 pages of work. He was clearly an excellent writer, and it's difficult to believe that he would have felt the need to crib prose from others. It was an unfortunate occurence, but even more unfortunate is the insistence of his enemies that it represented a deliberate act of intellectual theft. Pish-posh and shame on them.
If you haven't read Ambrose, do. His writing is the closest thing to a time machine set to the heartbreak and heroism, trials and tribulations, sacrifice and self-discovery of the battlefield. That there will be no more trips added to its available itineraries is truly a loss for the material archives of the human spirit.
Best wishes, Professor Ambrose, wherever you are. I hope that the spirits of all the brave soldiers whose memory you honored and to which you gave a form of immortality are meeting you at the door, hoisting you up on their shoulders, and giving you a rousing welcome. I imagine each one of them giving you a big smile, a clap on the shoulder, a heart-felt thanks, accepting you into their ranks as a brother. It would be a long, long line at the gates of heaven to welcome you in. A party to make even St. Peter reach for aspirin.