College professors sometimes wish for the impossible: an opportunity to re-convene class to correct or amend lectures they delivered years ago. A full-time university teacher for 35 years before retiring from academia seven years ago, top-selling historian Stephen Ambrose came as close as one can to achieving that feat before his death in October. "I want to correct all the mistakes I made" in the classroom, he said, in explaining his decision to write To America: Personal Reflections of a Historian.
For instance, acknowledging "I did not know then what I do now," Ambrose says in his final work that, contrary to what generations of students have been taught, it was disease not a deliberate policy of genocide that wiped out many Indian tribes as the government pushed the frontier westward. At first, he denounced the bombing of Hiroshima but, upon learning more, began telling his students: "Thank God for Harry Truman for his courage and decisiveness." He details why he came to praise rather than condemn the "robber barons" who mined millions of dollars in financing the first transcontinental railroad. And he explains how he evolved from an admitted Nixon hater to someone with a genuine appreciation of the disgraced president.
To America is a mixture of interpretive history, personal recollection and parental musings from one of our country's most popular historians with subjects ranging from Thomas Jefferson ("an intellectual coward" for doing nothing about slavery) to Lyndon Johnson, from racialism to women's rights, from war heroes to explorers. Ambrose also shares the work habit that resulted in his writing or editing some 30 books, a number of which sped from the bindery to best-seller lists: "You do it by working hard, six to 10 hours per day, six or seven days a week." He was also helped by the services of an "in-house" editor; his wife Moira listened to his readings of whatever he wrote each day and offered her suggestions. Thus, his advice to aspiring authors: "Marry an English major." Ambrose wrote To America after learning in April that he had lung cancer. Unsure how long he would live, he set aside other work to write thisfinal book, which he described as his "best" which means better than such blockbusters as Undaunted Courage, Citizen Soldiers andD-Day June 6, 1944. Whether or not To America is his best work, its pages certainly pulsate with the spirit and optimism of an author who was deeply in love with America.