National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches

Joseph J. Ellis, Winner of the 1997 NONFICTION AWARD for
American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson

Thank you. Thank you very much. I am genuinely, I can't even see any of you, surprised and thoroughly thrilled. To give you an idea of how alien all this is to me, when word came that a call had come from New York, that someone from the NBA wanted to speak to me [laughter] I, my first thought really was Tella Parie wanted me at the point. [laughter]

There was an evening last night when all of us who are nominees, or finalists, which is the better word, read. And that was a splendid evening, before we were separated as winners and losers. While I'll treasure this moment a lot, I'll remember longer that moment last night, because this is an impossible category of nonfiction. And up until this very morning it was my conviction that luck, idiosyncrasy, caprice and the politics of the judges was all that really counted. [laughter]

When everyone is looking for words, Thomas Jefferson is not a bad person to fall back on. And therefore prudence dictates, and a decent respect for the opinion for mankind requires, that I confess to a candid world that there were many people who sacrificed their lives, their honor and their sacred honor in my behalf. The people that cannot, mostly Ash Green, have a reputation for being the best of the best, I can testify they are. To my agent, Jerry McCauley, thanks for many lunches. [laughter] To Steve Smith, formerly editor of Civilization and now of the National Journal, who claims to have discovered or invented me as a writer, thank you. [laughter]

To my three sons, Peter, Scott, and Alexander who pulled me from the 18th Century and back into the present on a regular basis and therefore made me a better person, thank you. And to my wife, who sits at the table there. Who is right about almost everything. And who told me as I was trying to decide about whether to write about Jefferson, and who said, "Dear, you, like Jefferson, are from Virginia, it's true; and you, like Jefferson, are a graduate of the College of William and Mary, it's true; and you, like Jefferson, have hair, what remains of it, that is blondish-red, it's true; but you have absolutely no affinity for Thomas Jefferson." [laughter] My dear. [laughter]