Friends & Fiction
Friends & Fiction

Episode 15 · 1 year ago

WB S1E15: Ron Block, Patti Callahan with Nathaniel Philbrick

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

WRITERS' BLOCK: Ron Block and Patti Callahan host acclaimed writer, Nathaniel Philbrick to discuss his newest work, Travels With George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy

This is not a puff piece about George Washington. I had deep reservations as is following Washington at this time, in our history, the right thing. You know, a time when we're questioning the origins of this country. I came away from lee believing it is uh he is a good tour guy but this is a flawed individual. Mhm Welcome to the Friends and fiction writer's Block podcast. Five new york times, bestselling authors, one rock star librarian and endless stories Join Mary Kay Andrews, Kristen, Harmel, Christie Woodson, Harvey Paddy, Callaghan, Henry, Mary Alice Munro and Ron Block as novelists. We are five longtime friends with 85 books between us. I am Ron Block. I am so glad you joined us for fascinating author interviews along with Insider. Talk about publishing and writing. If you love books and are curious about the writing world, you're in the right place. Welcome to the Friends and Fiction Writer's Block podcast. Each episode we strive to take listeners on a short journey whether it's to the heart of a book and its author or taking a deeper dive into elements of the reading and writing world with fascinating guests. This week is no exception. As we welcome one of our most celebrated writers of history, Nathaniel Philbrick author of the newly released travels with George in search of Washington and his legacy, which booklist has given a starred review saying this provides highly personal reflection and unique perspective on both the history and the often contradictory lives of present day americans. I am Ron block and I am patty Callahan. Let me tell you about Nathaniel Philbrick. He was born in boston and raised in Pittsburgh pennsylvania where he developed an early interest in american literature and competitive sailing because that's where you learn about sailing. Pittsburgh pennsylvania. Okay, we're going to talk about that after attending Brown University where he was an all american sailor, he received a master's in english at a small little school called Duke University before moving to Nantucket island where he wrote his first work of History away offshore. In 2000 he published one of my favorites in the Heart of the Sea, which was the winner of the national Book award followed by Sea of Glory and Mayflower which was a finalist for the Pulitzer prize in history, The Last stand Why read Moby Dick and his american Revolution trilogy or other books he has written, he still lives on Nantucket with his wife Melissa and his dog Dora, both of whom are featured and travels with George. This is a man nearly as I can tell who follows his...

...instincts and his heart which both have led him to his profession and where he lives. Welcome to the podcast Nathaniel Philbrick, oh it's so great to be with me. Welcome, this is a lot of fun. Can you give us a quick thumbnail sketch of what the book is about before we really dive into travels with George which is as much a book as it is a journey. Both internal and external and of course we want to know everything about Dora. Yeah, well, well this is a book I decided to write after finishing my trilogy about the revolution. I was done with bloodshed and violence, but I was still fascinated with George Washington. What's going to happen to him next? And you know, I have been in my Office basement for 25 years working on these works of history and I just needed to get out there. You know, really, I live on Nantucket with 30 miles off Out in the middle of the ocean. It's, it's a 14 mile long island. I wanted to get on a car and drive And when George Washington became president, he realized he was the leader of essentially 13 independent states. He had to do something to unite the country. And this is before mass media where you turn on your TV and there is the president, he had to go to these towns all over the country to to say, hey, I am now you're the chief executive of your country. And so he set out on a series of road trips. The new England Tour took him all the way to Kittery point maine the southern tour, which was the longest of them all. Um took him all the way south to savannah. He wasn't traveling in air force one, it was a horse drawn carriage, you know. And so my wife Melissa Melissa is a retired attorney and was retiring from her second career as a director of a nonprofit here on Nantucket. She was finally sort of at her own liberty. And I thought, well let's go together. We had a new puppy named Dora, let's get out on the road and follow George. And so thus was born, travels with George fascinating because I'm always fascinated with origin stories, the listeners of our podcast. No, we even have a series about origin stories. So I love hearing that, that was your idea. But publishers weekly said this is an entertaining mix of history, travelogue and memoir. That takes a page from john Steinbeck's travels with charley. So in many ways this is an homage to that book where Steinbeck brought his standard poodle charley you brought. And I can say beloved because now we are all in love with Dora as well as your wife Melissa. But Dora plays a huge role in the book and in your really fascinating social media posts, you call her your research assistant.

So now that we know where the idea for the book came from, Tell us about why and how you made or a such a huge part of this. Yeah, well, you know, I love dogs, you know, that that's my, I love my wife, but we both love Dora and we wanted door to come along. You know, we just the idea of leaving Dora home was just, we could conceive of it. And you know, and I also wanted to see what Dora would do to the mix when we're talking to historians when we're talking to librarians. You know, you have this high energy red dog furry red dog who has a tendency to chase every squirrel that's ever seen. You know, all this stuff. And it was it was very interesting because you know, you you have a conversation with someone about George Washington and then Dora would bolt for a rabbit in a bush and suddenly the person would open up in a way that wouldn't have been the case if you were just talking about our first president. So and it just made it a lot more fun. Didn't necessarily make the accommodations any better because of course you had to go with dog friendly hotels. But it just we, you know, my wife and I look back today and just say that was just so much fun. We want to do a version of that again in some form. But you know Steinbeck really was onto something when he brought his dog. And so I would recommend it to anyone out there. It really livens things up. Yeah, torre really was a conversation starter and kind of a troublemaker to some of the hotel room stories are amazing and you should get the book just for those. Well, you know, there was one where you know, she's full of mud and you know, you you know why is every hotel room blindingly white. You know, you go in there, you know, it's just everything. You need sunglasses to see anything and then Dora comes in all muddy and you have to read the book to find out what happens next. But it wasn't pretty, but it was great to read. It's awesome to read. So in the book, he wrote what worried Washington more than anything else was what might happen if a president's chief priority was to divide rather than unite the american people, which is pretty precedent given the world that we're living in today. Just does George Washington still matter what is his unique contribution other than the obvious that he was president of the newly formed union. What's his relevance now took 230 years later. Yeah, well, you know, he, I think he, if he was magically transported today and saw the divide, we're in the middle of it wouldn't surprise him because he had to deal with the rise of partisanship during his two terms as president. So, you know, that writing was on the wall, but I think what would really deeply disturbed him was modern attempts to...

...undermine the people's faith in government. His whole life was spent establishing the legitimacy of a government of laws, not of people but of laws. And um, it would have been deeply upsetting to him to think that, you know, you know, anyone would actively undermine what the country is trying to do in serving its people because that was the purpose of his journeys. That was really the purpose of his presidency. You know, the union, the union was what Washington was all about. And so, you know, I think modern politicians could take a lesson from him. He was, he was perfectly willing to risk unpopularity by reaching across the divide. You know, when he became president, America was already politically divided. It wasn't republican democrat, it was federalists who believed in a strong national government and anti federals who believe that the state should obtain more power. And when he became president to states, Rhode island and north Carolina had not even ratified the constitution. And so what does he do? He first thing he does when Rhode island ratifies the constitution, is get on a sailboat sail to Rhode island and meet the people who were the most reluctant in the country to embrace what he represented. And sure enough, he turned the greatest skeptics in America into some of his biggest fans. It is fascinating and you give us such a, almost a personal picture of his journeys and his thoughts and it's obviously things that I wasn't taught in school. It's so great to read them again now with more thought behind them. But as you were researching and following the journey of George and kind of thinking about his mythology. Were you ever disappointed in him? Yes, yeah. I mean, look, this is not a puff piece about George Washington. I had deep reservations. Is following Washington at this time, in our history, the right thing, you know, a time when we're questioning the origins of this country. I came away from Lee believing it is uh he is a good tour guide, but this is a flawed individual. This was a man who was a slave owner at age 11 when his father died and he inherited several enslaved people. And by the end of his life he would of course free his enslaved people. But he, you know, it was after he had died. And you know, and and as I talk about in the book, he had a very tough, very complex relationship with slavery was part of literally what he grew up with, but he came to realize after the revolution that, you know, slavery was was wrong and that it needed to be dealt with if his dream of a union was going to survive. And so this is someone who had...

...the ability to question the assumptions with which he grew up with. He never completely was able to free himself from those assumptions. Uh, In the book, I talk about, uh, even almost on the day he died, he was pursuing owner judge, a woman who had served as his wife Martha's house served. She escaped in in philadelphia fled to new Hampshire. And Washington at Martha's insistence kept making active attempts to capture her and bring her back. And yet at the same time, he was writing in his will to free his enslaved people on his plantation. This is a complicated story. And if we are going to understand the complicated origins of this country, you have to deal with Washington, you can't just forget him. You have to look deeply in it, because that's the only way we're going to face the future. Yep, the mythology of whether it's a city or a person or a history it, right. It's it's the story we end up coming to accept, you know, I've read this story of of Washington on that horse and he had bullet holes in his coat, but he wasn't injured. And, you know, there was the mythology that he was divine and these things start to grow, right. These ideas about who our founders were start to grow and nobody's all good and nobody's all bad. Well, there are probably some exceptions there, but there's this this complicated and we have to be willing to look at both. And in that star booklist review, it says, Philbrick moves from one centuries point of view to another's perceptively observing what has changed and what has not. He particularly notes the past and current legacy of slaveholding, whether in the north or south and like you just talked about as a historian until now from reading the rest of your novels. Well, they're not novels reading the rest of your books, you have mostly veered away from overt political commentary and controversy, but here you waited directly into it. And like we talked about pulled back the veil on the mythology, which was unavoidable. If you were going to be honest, when I was writing surviving savannah, I interviewed this museum curator who used this phrase that I kept thinking about when I was reading your book, which is emancipating the past. Mhm And I know this is probably your most personal book to date. But I want you to talk to us about that about what...

...emancipating the past means to you in this book and how it felt more personal this time. Yeah. Well this is a very personal book and but emancipating the past is a very apt phrase because that's integrate it is and you know, the past has to be rediscovered by every generation because every generation looks back on a different perspective. Uh, you know, when you look at how this country began with the declaration that all men are created equal, it meant one thing back in 1776. It's evolved to mean another thing in 2021 and it's different for everyone when we look at it. That's and yet the truth, there is things happened back then that have a tent, we have a tendency to try to bend what happened to meet where we are today. Um, and you know, it's, it's we're almost looking in a mirror because what we want to see is what we tend to find when, not necessarily, that's the way it was. And so with this book for me, the past is so much more interesting. If you look at it warts and all, if you look at there are good people, there are bad people. Most of us are somewhere in between and someone like Washington is endlessly inspiring for me because he understood the failings of his society. He understood many of his personal film that didn't mean he was able to leave the life of the Saint. No one on this earth can do that. But he was struggling and that is the essential thing. And as soon as you refuse to see him in his weakest and most disturbing moments, you really robbed him of his humanity. And, and, and so this is what history is all about. You know, we look at statues and say, oh, you know, that's that's the heroic past of America, but history isn't frozen on a pedestal. History changes evolves. One of the people I talked to about Washington's legacy in providence said, you know, history keeps breaking the ice. You know, it's, it's just ongoing. It's kind of scary because you see things, you know, your, your previous generation didn't want to see. Um, and yet I find it in the final phase you mentioned emancipated to, to realize, wait, okay, they weren't necessarily better than us in the past. They were very much like us struggling as best they could and inevitably failing, but trying to do better. And I think that's what looking at the past is all about, wow. It's fascinating. And the boy, does the book ever shine like that? I'm telling you just a little bit of a decide here. His trip took him as far...

...north as Kittery Point Maine and then Savannah, which was the southernmost city as you said that he visited. And of course Patty writes about that city quite a bit and she says that there's a plaque in johnson square about Washington's visit to the city and I'm sure there probably is one in every state he visited. You mentioned a few of them, you know, Washington slept here. Data data that do you feel that there was a city that he loved more than any others or a place that he really saw the potential of the country? You know, that's a really good question. The place he saw the most, yeah, that he loved getting out. I mean, and seeing the people, it actually made, it was good for his help. You know, as soon as he became president, he started to come down with a series of diseases that almost killed him and he realized he had to get out of the office if he was going to live through his presidency. And so this was, this was not a road trip. Just to see America, this was the road trip to save his life and the presidency. And so I think just about every town, You know, he really enjoyed it. You know, you and what fascinated me was the accounts I would get of ordinary people on the side of the road, You know, Oyster bay new york, you know, still a little tiny little town. There's an eight year old girl at her gait as she sees George Washington on a horse riding by. And just as he's coming across the street from her, they're building the one room schoolhouse will be there for for decades. And you know, Washington was a tall man. He was 6264 inches, a giant, relatively speaking. And he gets off his horse and he helps raise one of the rafters into position. And this is not, you know, this is a guy who's enjoying himself who's out there. Um, and so you know, I'm sure he had a great memory of that. But I tell you when he went south, I think he really enjoyed charleston and savannah. You know, the parties they held for him were, you know, off the charts. And uh, as as you know, our, our adventures sort of mimic Washington's, we arrived in savannah on the friday of, of Pat ST Patrick's day weekend. Now I had been, I, my wife and I had really no clue that ST Patrick's day was that big and some my anyway, so like two weeks before one of the historians I'm talking. He said, what? You're coming to Savannah that weekend. There's no way I can visit you. What? Are you crazy? I said, why? What? And I said, it's gonna be a city under siege. It's going to be a sea of green. I said, Oh, so I should get a room now. He said, yes, you should get a room now. And I think we probably got the last room in Savannah, at least the last dog friendly room in Savannah. And uh, man, it was quite, quite, uh, a back channel...

...and fascinating for us. You know, Savannah is an endlessly interesting city where even in the midst of the biggest party I've ever been a part of the past is right there with you. So true. So true. Savannah such a special place. So reading the book. It made me kind of want to go back and see some of the cities that I have visited previously with a new thought about them based on what you had shared in the book. What are the top cities that you think people ought to revisit and kind of look at through a different lens. Yeah, It's so hard to make a list, you know, because I don't want to do anyone and injustice, But uh, but I have to say Savannah and charleston high on the list as any of them boston surprised. You know, I think I was born in boston. I thought I knew boston pretty well. But you go in following Washington. It's a very different perspective, you know, you follow Washington is called Washington street. It's the route he took in and suddenly you know melissa and I were in the car and it's like oh you know that's where the Liberty tree would have been if it hadn't been chopped down during the revolution. You know, there's all this thing and it all just sort of comes together and so that was really fascinating. The whole tour up New England, what we became fascinated by where these little towns that uh you know, I was used to being on the highway getting off the exit and finding myself in the middle of the town, not really knowing how it was connected to anything around it. But we were following Washington's route, realizing how route one became the main street of each town. And you begin to see the organic nature of the settlements of New England. So I, fortunately was really interesting town. The quiet corner of Connecticut, the northeastern corner, we had never really ventured into their but after that melissa and I are thinking of getting a second home there. It was just such an interesting place, a quiet corner we had never known existed just an hour outside of providence Rhode island. But and then the other one is philadelphia of course, you know this you know, it's hard to get beat philadelphia, its historic core. It's just there, the origins of America institutionally are there. And this is where our travels with George technically ended. And one of the things I wanted to make sure was Dora melissa and I needed to get a horse drawn carriage and there is a great company that gives you historic tours of philadelphia on a horse drawn carriage. And so Dora melissa and I got on there, the, the horse's name was appropriately spot, you know, a dog's name for a horse. Dora was a little...

...concerned, get meeting this great beast. But soon once we were going along, she's up on the seat between us. You know, looking at Tolars are kind of very intense dogs and she's looking around almost as if she's listening to the tour guide is, he's uh, delivering history with a, with a sense of humor, if not factually correct all the time, but it was terrific. But on that, doing that once again, I traveled the streets of philadelphia a lot. But there's something about having a specific purpose in your journey. You know, when you're, we were following somebody that made all the difference. And finally I just have to end with the interior south Augusta was, oh my God, I had never really spent any time in Augusta. And uh, Bill Kirby, who is a columnist for the savannah newspaper. They gave us a tour and it was just revelatory and then Camden south Carolina. Just a beautiful little town full of history And uh, you know, and then on up into the old Salem, which is one of the, you've got to go there, you know, this old Arabian village that is now a museum. And you know, where history is truly still alive and where Washington sat on the deck of the porch listening to a Moravian brass band serenaded, you know, so images like that where you know, you just have to be there to really begin to understand it. Mhm. I think you need to start a tour company. I was just thinking, I think I want to go on this tour. So, and that because my husband Pat Henry loved this book so much. I promised him I'd ask one of his questions and he wants to know half joking what was more impactful for you. Your sailboat accident in Nantucket or landing in ST Patrick's day savannah. Well, they were both storms, I have to say. Uh, you know, we, uh, we were of course driving most of the time. But when Washington visited Rhode island, he did it by sea. I think as I alluded to earlier, he learned that Rhode island had ratified the constitution. He hops on a schooner, sales from new york, which was then the temporary capital and sales to Newport and providence. And we live on Nantucket. So melissa and I decided, hey, we're going to sail, are y'all Phoebe to Newport and we were really excited. It was fun. We've decided not to take Dora in this instance, thank goodness because On our 2nd day we had just left Martha's vineyard headed for Newport when our phones started to bleat. Uh, and we got a warning uh tornado seek shelter shelter were in the middle of the ocean and I talk about just having,...

...you know, you're well. So I said melissa, let's get our life jackets on. I turned on the engine, we started to take down the sales when behind us heard the most blood curdling sound. Yeah, it wasn't what Dorothy saw coming at her, but it was this wall of grey, horizontal rain wind at a speed I've never experienced at sea. And anyway, once again, you're gonna have to read the book to find out how, I guess we survive since I'm talking to you. But it was melissa and I are still haunted by it. We really are. We, we, I was, I was at a book signing down south just before Covid hit and we were driving back from the event to the hotel and the radio station said, you know, tornado warnings, you know melissa just Oh no, no. So, so that was, that was when, um, that was pure terror. Savannah was not terror by any means, but it was a storm. And you know, speaking of the south, you were born and raised in the northeast and still live there and all the Washington, loved coming to the south, There was a significant part of that that was challenging for him. But his perspective shifted when he visited. And I'm wondering if your perspective or views of the south shifted it all by visiting these places. You've mentioned like Augusta and Camden in savannah and charleston. Did you have a preconceived notion that shifted just as Washington's did? Yeah, you're absolutely right about Washington. We think of him as a southerner because Virginia Virginia, but he had never really been to north Carolina. South Carolina Georgia. He knew the mid atlantic and New England area much better than his own supposed region. And, and he was, you know, when he went south, it was when many of the new policies of his administration, especially when it came to a tax on whiskey where there were unpopular. And so he went down there with warning, dire warnings, you know, that they will not be happy with you. And he was able to speak to people to really, you know, talk them down in a way and say, this is why we're doing, it's for the good of the country. You know, not look beyond yourself that not that they completely sold, but you know, he made progress in that regard melissa and I had spent a year in the south melissa's first job out of college was at the valentine museum in enrichment and I had been at Duke getting a masters and we love the south. But you can't live in any place for a year and say, you know it, but you know, we were and so...

...we were really looking forward to it and you know, and this was a time when confederate statues were going down, you know, they're still, you know, uh look at Richmond, uh, what's going on there. And so we were kind of in the midst of that and, and you know, um you have a, you get the news reports and you know, that sort of gives you a sense, but I have to say you have to go to a place, you have to be there, you have to understand, get a sense of the terrain, get a sense of the history, get a sense of where people have come from to get, you know, you have to have an element of empathy when you travel, if you go down there, you know, well, it's not new England, you're going to have a miserable journey and you're kind of sort of missed the point of the whole exercise. It really is to venture outside of the perspective outside of your comfort zone and try to understand other people. And, and so for us, it was a, it was a process of doing exactly that. And uh and visiting with people from very different perspectives, listening to them and and learning and that's it for me, every book is a process of, I don't write these books is on an expert in the field, I write these books because I want to know more about the topic that I just haven't read the book. That explains, that goes out of the way that I'd like to learn. And so each book is a learning process. And what was great about this one. This was not just history, this was learning about our country today. Learning about human nature, you know, having discussions with people that I never would have anticipated, and you know, and that's it, a journey. Uh, you don't know where you're going to end up. That's the, you know, as soon as you think, you know, where you're going, the journey will completely throw your preconceptions out the window and that's what it's all about. Everyone could stay as curious and open as you and melissa and Dora. I think the whole nation would be in a better spot. Right, Well, thank you. But uh, you know, one of the things, listen, I still talk about it today about, you know, the news will, something will come up about, you know, our ever widening divide and about what we ran into, you know, whether it's Columbia south Carolina, the capital and things like that and and you know, I The 11 thing history has taught me and particularly this journey is humility as soon as you judge others, as soon as you think you figured it out. Um, things will change in a way that will make a mockery of of what you were so firmly believed in. You know, uh you know, there's the old...

...saying, those who do, I do not know their past due to repeat it, I have to say, no matter how much you know about your past, it doesn't help you all that much today. I mean, it should teach you only humility word, you know, those of us who are so self righteous in our stands today. Uh, if we were, you know, wait 100 years and people will be wondering, what would they think much as you're doing the same, looking back 100 years. So, uh, this was Washington's great point when his two cabinet members, alexander Hamilton and thomas, Jefferson started, you know, arguing with each other is virtual warfare. And it was a personal friction that mirrored what was happening in the country. And he just and his point was as soon as you're pushing your point so hard that others are in uproar maybe should just think, well, what's their point? Is there something in the middle that is perhaps better for everyone That's, that was there's a wisdom from that we gained from this journey and from this is getting to know, George it was that, you know, um yes, we have our beliefs but just retain a sense of empathy, humility. Yeah, right, wow, Well, this book is just amazing and I just thank you so much for sharing all of this with us today. We could probably talk for three weeks I think about all this. There's a lot, a lot to say. So encourage everybody to get their hands on the book and dig right in. Thank you so much for joining us on the podcast. The book is, as I said, amazing about a blurred time in history and I know that I learned a lot that I never learned in school and it really opened up my thinking. So I so appreciate that. But where can people learn more about you and the book and where can they find you online? Yeah, Nathaniel Philbrick dot com is my website. I'm also on the socials instagram and facebook and if you have any interest in Dora, there's plenty about Dora uh in the instagram. She's a nova Scotia duck, tolling retriever and also my research assistant. So thank you both. It was wonderful to have a chance to speak with you. Yeah, well thank you for tuning into this truly special episode. Don't forget to share with a friend and don't forget to preorder your copy of my co host forthcoming novel Once upon a wardrobe, which I loved. It's a loving tribute to books and storytelling family and to our collective lifelong love of reading and imagination patty. You've really outdone yourself with this one and I can't wait to talk to you in depth about it on a future podcast. Thank you Ron that book absolutely stole a piece of my heart. But right now everyone go...

...out and grab travels with George and join us Wednesday night live on the friends and fiction facebook page and Youtube and that, that was so poignant and beautiful and I feel like I'm going to listen to this a couple times over. You had some powerful things to say. So thank you for joining us and everyone out there. Thanks for listening. Thank you for tuning in to friends and fiction writer's block podcast. Please be sure to subscribe, rate and review on your favorite podcast platform, tune in every friday for another episode. And you can also join us every week on facebook or Youtube where you can see our live friends and fiction show that airs at seven p.m. Eastern Standard time. We are so glad you're here. Yeah.

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