As anyone who has traveled with Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours knows, our historians are, simply put, the best. They are leaders in their field, world-renowned authors, podcast hosts, documentary filmmakers and sought after experts for articles, movies and TV shows.
But who are they really? To give you an inkling, we thought it would be fun to modify the Proust Questionnaire for our historians. Popularized by Marcel Proust, the French novelist and essayist, this set of questions is said to reveal a person’s true nature.
Today, Mark Bielski answers our Historians Proust Questionnaire. Mark leads our Civil War: Mississippi River Campaign Tour as well as others, including WWII in Poland and Germany. He has published two books on the Civil War, Sons of the White Eagle in the American Civil War: Divided Poles in a Divided Nation, and A Mortal Blow to the Confederacy: The Fall of New Orleans, 1862.
Mark Bielski, Ph.D. Answers the Historians Proust Questionnaire
What is your idea of perfect happiness on tour?
Having a group of guests who are interested in the subjects and enjoy engaging others in conversations with questions and comments—no matter their level of knowledge.
What is your greatest fear on tour?
Accidentally leaving someone behind or having a guest get lost, especially if he or she does not know the locale or language.
What do you consider the most overrated virtue of a historical figure?
What is the quality you most like in a historical figure?
Stability and calmness in crises or times of difficulty.
There are many people in history who embody this, but George Washington immediately comes to mind. He had myriad difficulties, from troops ready to depart when their enlistments expired, lack of supplies, fighting a very professional British army, terrible weather in many cases, and illnesses among the troops (he introduced mass smallpox vaccinations for his men). There is more, but suffice it to say he never faltered and his men never detected any wavering in their commander.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse on tour?
”Now . . .” as in “Now, when the troops entered Winchester . . .”
But at least I trained myself to use this rather than “Umm . . .” as in “UMM, when they got to Umm, Winchester. . .”
Where have you been happiest when on tour?
On the Civil War Mississippi Campaign Tour, it is bringing guests to New Orleans at the end of the tour, primarily because I can show them around and direct them to places of interest in my home city. They can range from where to dine, to entertainment as well as historical sites.
On the WWII Poland and Germany Tour, it is at the Wierzynek Restaurant in Krakow. In 1364 the King of Poland, Casimir the Great, invited European heads of state to a meeting in Krakow to promote peace, sort of the precursor to the EU. The king’s wealthy friend provided the catering of excellent food and drink for the ten-day pow wow. This gathering and occasion morphed into this age-old restaurant in the center of the city, one of the prettiest in Europe. They serve traditional dishes with a modern flair as well as more contemporary cuisine. Dining there is definitely a memorable experience.
Which talent of a historical figure would you most like to have?
Discipline, determination and having clear goals and objectives. You could combine them all into self-discipline.
Thomas Jonathan Jackson (later known to be “Stonewall”) came from the rural mountains of western Virginia with little formal education unlike the 133 cadets he started with as a Plebe at the United States Military Academy at West Point. He worked his way up to graduate 17th of 59 in the Class of 1846. He did this with diligent study, discipline and determination. His classmates felt that if Jackson were to be at the Academy for another year, he would be at the “head of the class.”
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Force myself to finish my historical novel. Almost halfway there but no one earns a medal for finishing half the race.
What do you consider your greatest achievement on tour?
Assisting guests in returning home or to their next destination safely and on schedule.
In which period of history would you most like to live?
Current. I prefer to have the modern advantages available for communication, research, daily life and leisure. Many of these were not available in the 19th century or even 50 years ago.
What is your most marked characteristic as an historian?
Also, not taking minor issues too seriously and not turning ordinary setbacks into major trials (eg. A late bus or the requested lunch is not vegetarian). I just remedy the situation and keep the guests happy.
What do you most value in your guests?
Genuine interest in the history and subject matter we are studying—especially if their interest and participation increases as the tour progresses.
Who are your favorite writers?
William Faulkner. His writes almost poetic prose about the characters and country in the locale in Mississippi that he created.
Bernard Cornwell. Especially for his historically accurate depiction of the Napoleonic wars in the Iberian Peninsula and his portrayal of characters in the British army at the time.
James Lee Burke. His crime novels paint vivid pictures of south Louisiana and unique characters that one could only find here.
George Macdonald Fraser. He chose the bully from Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Flashman and turns him into an unlikely hero in the British Army and Empire. Whether in Afghanistan, India or the American South of mid-nineteenth century, the adventures and misadventures take place within actual events and very accurate history of the Victorian Period.
Throw in Tom Wolfe. He knows how to tell a story and keep the reader interested in the narrative from start to finish. Superb research and detail. Whether factual reporting or fiction, he brings characters to life. I Am Charlotte Simmons is a perfect example.
Who is your hero of historical fiction?
Jean Valjean. Victor Hugo takes a peasant who served nearly two decades in prison and transforms him into a virtuous man, generous and kind to all as well as a father figure to his adopted daughter. All the while he is stalked by a bulldog police Inspector who sees only a convict despite Valjean’s transformation and new life.
Who are your heroes in real life?
What is your motto?
I attended Georgetown Prep in Washington, D.C. For 234 years, Prep has encouraged young men to strive for the Magis – excellence in all things. I carry this with me:
“Conscience, courage, and compassion. BE A man of faith, and a man for others.”