Joseph Ellis

Citation for 2000 Meribeth E. Cameron Faculty Award for Scholarship

Joe has been a star, our star, from the time he came to Mount Holyoke in 1972. Joe now has five books, not counting edited volumes and a book in press. His first book, The New England Mind in Transition, is a biography of Samuel Johnson of Connecticut whose career was long and complex. Joe was particularly interested in Johnson's intellectual life, which was rich, and somewhat bizarre at the end. Critics hailed the book as a highly imaginative analysis of the intricate relationship between Puritanism and eighteenth-century rationalism. That book also signaled Joe's abiding interest in the intellectual world that brought on the new Republic in the latter third of the eighteenth century.

Joe's next book, School for Soldiers: West Point and the Profession of Arms, written with Robert Moore, examines in depth the unique social, intellectual, and institutional experience of West Point in the first seventy years of the twentieth century, an experience that froze the educational program in some absurd ways. Joe, however, explores not so much West Point's absurdities as its ambiguities and the power of those ambiguities. Knowing the role that Joe has played in the College over nearly twenty five years, including a decade as Dean, one cannot help but notice his awareness that institutions are organic, human artifacts that can get derailed and that are accessible to individuals. One sees also the intellectual roots of Joe's horror of parochialism and his insistence that Mount Holyoke face into the world.

The third book is a collection of essays on a variety of figures in the early national period. This book brings together Joe the intellectual historian, with Joe the commentator on broad themes in American life and thought. One of his reviewers captures it well in saying that Joe wants not only to be a responsible scholar, but also to help shape the world of which he is a part.

Joe's fourth and fifth books Passionate Sage: the Character and Legacy of John Adams and American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson merit much, but need little, comment. They are quite simply spectacular. They testify to the notion that historians, like wine, get better and deeper and more complex as they mature. Both books are accessible to a general readership, yet thoroughly scholarly; both shed new light on subjects who had received much study. In the words of a revered historian: "[Joe] has a dazzling imagination, always responsibly exercised, that finds more in the documentary evidence than most manage to discover. Unlike many intellectual historians, he does not venture into the rarified upper atmospheres of philosophical speculation without having first constructed a firm evidentiary foundation.." Others praise how Joe roots his work in an awareness of social history and cite his contempt for "corridor history": the grand history that people talk about in hallways but cannot accomplish in practice because the evidence is not there. No one can read much of Joe's work, or listen to him, without noting the grace and economy of his writing and speaking: few characterizations capture so much in two words as "Passionate Sage" or "American Sphinx."

Joe's books are only a part of his work. He has journal articles, has edited a number of other books, and is out there in the media. He is a superb teacher and a gifted lecturer. He was fascinated by different pedagogies well before it was fashionable. One of his colleagues writes that Joe "is a person endowed with enormous drive and self-discipline: there are very few days -- even during the fishing season -- when he is not writing, or correcting papers, or preparing for class by 7:00 a.m. Far from draining him, this boundless, inexhaustible energy infuses everything he does" -- and is.