Bestselling history writer Nathaniel Philbrick retraces George Washington’s travels
“I knew there were going to be a couple of layers: George Washington’s travels and our travels and what various places bring up in my own past experiences, a memoir. It was a challenge of interweaving three different kinds of books.” — Nathaniel Philbrick
Father of our country.
Revolutionary War general.
Our first president.
Slave owner (from age 11 to his death.)
Character in “Hamilton:
An American Musical.”
And don’t forget to add to that list “big traveler.”
How else do you think all those “Washington slept here” plaques happened?
A few years ago, New York Times bestselling author Nathaniel Philbrick decided to take a journey and travel in Washington’s footsteps, following the various trips our first president took after being sworn in.
Like John Steinbeck, who traveled with his dog Charley, Mr. Philbrick took his dog Dora (named after the wife of Dickens’s David Copperfield.)
He also took his spouse, Melissa, just as Steinbeck had taken his own wife on parts of his journey. (Steinbeck neglected to mention her, as he thought it looked more heroic to be a lone man traveling with his dog.)
Nathaniel Philbrick COURTESTY PHOTO
“It’s a great book, that doesn’t change it for me,” Mr. Philbrick says of Steinbeck’s classic “Travels With Charley. “He’s a novelist, so he approached it in that way. I think the spirit of the book is terrific.”
Mr. Philbrick’s own book, “Travels With George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy” ($30, Viking), released in September, is part history book, part road journey and part memoir, all woven together.
He’d thought of Washington as “a stuffed shirt,” but became intrigued when, in Rhode Island, he saw John Brown’s chariot that had transported the former president. He describes it as looking like the back seat of a VW Bug mounted on four skinny wheels.
What had Washington been doing in Rhode Island, he wondered.
Mr. Philbrick decided to trace the journeys Washington took after becoming president. The country was extremely divided then, and “Washington hoped to use the power of his immense popularity to foster a sense of unity and national pride that had not previously existed,” he writes in his book.
And after a couple of decades of writing about our country’s past, with books such as “Mayflower,” “Bunker Hill” and “In the Heart of the Sea,” he wanted to see what our country had become.
He also wanted to see, during these polarizing times, what still holds us together.
Mr. Philbrick will speak and sign books at this year’s Southwest Florida Reading Festival. It runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, March 5 on the grounds of the Fort Myers Regional Library in downtown Fort Myers.
The free event features authors of books for adults, teens, and young children. Writers include Alafair Burke, JA Jance, Joe Ide and Kate Quinn. (See sidebar for full list of names, or go to www.readfest.org for more information on the event.)
Origins and ambiguity
“What really interests me are origins, when things start. One of my earlier books is ‘Mayflower,’ about that voyage and its repercussions,” says Mr. Philbrick, naming his book that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
“I’m also interested in leadership. The Revolution brought all of that together.”
Once he’d written three books about the Revolution, he wanted to see what happened next for Washington.
“My interest in him was something I didn’t see coming,” he says. “I didn’t see that he had relevance to my life and our lives together.”
George Washington is bigger than Elvis he claims — at least in 2014, when 600,000 people visited Graceland but a million people visited Mount Vernon, Washington’s home.
Mr. Philbrick likes to “probe the darkness at the edges of our nation’s history.”
He’s attracted to difficulties, struggles.
“I don’t see American history as a series of victories. And if it was that, I couldn’t be interested,” he says. “What interests me is the struggle, the ambiguity.
“One thing I found is the past is a lot like today when it comes to the difficulty of knowing what’s happening next. No one knows what’s going to happen next. We’re all making it up as we go along, in one way or another.”
“Sometimes when we look at figures in history, we think, ‘They’re different from who we are; they knew where we were going,’” he says. “That’s wrong. They’re people doing the best they can, in often terrifying and dislocating circumstances. I try to create a sense of that.”
After writing almost a dozen history books that required endless research, time spent in the archives or at his desk, by himself, “I wanted to get out and see the country,” Mr. Philbrick says.
He also wanted to have a different voice.
“Historians can take themselves too seriously,” he admits. “We’re all out there trying to do the best we can. To have a cocked eyebrow and be able to laugh at yourself while doing it is not all that bad. I wanted a chance to have some fun with the material, but take it into the depths; some of it is not fun.
“With every one of my books, I want to present a new narrative challenge to myself. I knew there were going to be a couple of layers: George Washington’s travels and our travels and what various places bring up in my own past experiences, a memoir. It was a challenge of interweaving three different kinds of books.”
It may not have been a typical book for him, but it was the one he needed to write, he says.
The book is also a love letter to librarians and their profession.
“They’re a group of people who have been essential to my career,” Mr. Philbrick says. “(It was great) to be able to go out there and interview them, and in some cases get in a car with them and have them drive me around and show me around. It was a culmination of so much, as a writer, a journalist, someone who’s been dependent my all my life on librarians, archivists, those kinds of people.”
But life changed drastically after he’d taken his research trips.
“Steinbeck said you don’t take a journey, a journey takes you,” Mr. Philbrick paraphrases. “That applies to life, too. Little did we know that everything would change.”
He and his wife and dog had traveled for more than a year and a half.
“Almost as soon as I sat down to write about it, the world changed,” he says. “That made it a writing experience like none I’ve had. It felt like the world was shifting under everyone’s feet. That brought into bold relief to me the issues already latent in the material, as we were in this unprecedented time, reflecting back on a journey that had been conducted under very different circumstances.”
Healing the division
Looking at the early days of our country and reading about them can give us hope, he believes.
“I think those of us today think we invented partisanship,” Mr. Philbrick says. “The divides we have now are extraordinary, more than I’ve experienced in my 65 years. But if you look at the past, there were times that were just as bad, or worse than we are today, in terms of people not seeing eye-to-eye, divided by preconceptions and their own sense of right and wrong.
“And it’s very ugly and personal. And yes, we have different technology, now, social media. In the past, the newspapers operated much that way.
“The election that led to Thomas Jefferson being elected president in 1800, that was just an awful mess in terms of how candidates attacked one another, and the press’s role. So, it’s happened before.”
But looking at history, Mr. Philbrick thinks things now will eventually improve.
“It happened before,” he says. “Have faith in our institutions.
“This won’t evaporate any time soon, but I think given the passage of time and the way our country has been designed — our government was designed with checks and balances — I think we will find a way forward.” ¦