Friends & Fiction
Friends & Fiction

Episode 15 · 2 months 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 GeorgeWashington. 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 theorigins of this country. I came away from lee believing it is uh he is agood tour guy but this is a flawed individual. Mhm Welcome to the Friends and fictionwriter's Block podcast. Five new york times, bestselling authors, one rockstar librarian and endless stories Join Mary Kay Andrews, Kristen, Harmel,Christie Woodson, Harvey Paddy, Callaghan, Henry, Mary Alice Munro andRon Block as novelists. We are five longtime friends with 85 books betweenus. I am Ron Block. I am so glad you joined us for fascinating authorinterviews along with Insider. Talk about publishing and writing. If youlove books and are curious about the writing world, you're in the rightplace. Welcome to the Friends and Fiction Writer's Block podcast. Eachepisode we strive to take listeners on a short journey whether it's to theheart of a book and its author or taking a deeper dive into elements ofthe reading and writing world with fascinating guests. This week is noexception. As we welcome one of our most celebrated writers of history,Nathaniel Philbrick author of the newly released travels with George in searchof Washington and his legacy, which booklist has given a starred reviewsaying this provides highly personal reflection and unique perspective onboth the history and the often contradictory lives of present dayamericans. I am Ron block and I am patty Callahan. Let me tell you aboutNathaniel Philbrick. He was born in boston and raised in Pittsburghpennsylvania where he developed an early interest in american literatureand competitive sailing because that's where you learn about sailing.Pittsburgh pennsylvania. Okay, we're going to talk about that afterattending Brown University where he was an all american sailor, he received amaster's in english at a small little school called Duke University beforemoving to Nantucket island where he wrote his first work of History awayoffshore. 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 andMayflower which was a finalist for the Pulitzer prize in history, The Laststand Why read Moby Dick and his american Revolution trilogy or otherbooks he has written, he still lives on Nantucket with his wife Melissa and hisdog Dora, both of whom are featured and travels with George. This is a mannearly as I can tell who follows his...

...instincts and his heart which both haveled him to his profession and where he lives. Welcome to the podcast NathanielPhilbrick, oh it's so great to be with me. Welcome, this is a lot of fun. Canyou give us a quick thumbnail sketch of what the book is about before we reallydive into travels with George which is as much a book as it is a journey. Bothinternal 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 mytrilogy about the revolution. I was done with bloodshed and violence, but Iwas still fascinated with George Washington. What's going to happen tohim next? And you know, I have been in my Office basement for 25 years workingon 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 theocean. It's, it's a 14 mile long island. I wanted to get on a car and drive Andwhen George Washington became president, he realized he was the leader ofessentially 13 independent states. He had to do something to unite thecountry. And this is before mass media where you turn on your TV and there isthe 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 heset out on a series of road trips. The new England Tour took him all the wayto 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 airforce one, it was a horse drawn carriage, you know. And so my wifeMelissa Melissa is a retired attorney and was retiring from her second careeras a director of a nonprofit here on Nantucket. She was finally sort of ather own liberty. And I thought, well let's go together. We had a new puppynamed Dora, let's get out on the road and follow George. And so thus was born,travels with George fascinating because I'm alwaysfascinated with origin stories, the listeners of our podcast. No, we evenhave 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, travelogueand memoir. That takes a page from john Steinbeck's travels with charley. So inmany ways this is an homage to that book where Steinbeck brought hisstandard poodle charley you brought. And I can say beloved because now weare all in love with Dora as well as your wife Melissa. But Dora plays ahuge 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 forthe book came from, Tell us about why and how you made or a such a huge partof this. Yeah, well, you know, I love dogs, you know, that that's my, I lovemy wife, but we both love Dora and we wanted door to come along. You know, wejust the idea of leaving Dora home was just, we could conceive of it. And youknow, and I also wanted to see what Dora would do to the mix when we'retalking to historians when we're talking to librarians. You know, youhave this high energy red dog furry red dog who has a tendency to chase everysquirrel that's ever seen. You know, all this stuff. And it was it was veryinteresting because you know, you you have a conversation with someone aboutGeorge Washington and then Dora would bolt for a rabbit in a bush andsuddenly the person would open up in a way that wouldn't have been the case ifyou were just talking about our first president. So and it just made it a lotmore fun. Didn't necessarily make the accommodations any better because ofcourse you had to go with dog friendly hotels. But it just we, you know, mywife and I look back today and just say that was just so much fun. We want todo a version of that again in some form. But you know Steinbeck really was ontosomething when he brought his dog. And so I would recommend it to anyone outthere. It really livens things up. Yeah, torre really was a conversation starterand kind of a troublemaker to some of the hotel room stories are amazing andyou should get the book just for those. Well, you know, there was one where youknow, she's full of mud and you know, you you know why is every hotel roomblindingly 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 youhave to read the book to find out what happens next. But it wasn't pretty, butit was great to read. It's awesome to read. So in the book, he wrote whatworried Washington more than anything else was what might happen if apresident's chief priority was to divide rather than unite the americanpeople, which is pretty precedent given the world that we're living in today.Just does George Washington still matter what is his unique contributionother 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, Ithink 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 dealwith the rise of partisanship during his two terms as president. So, youknow, that writing was on the wall, but I think what would really deeplydisturbed him was modern attempts to...

...undermine the people's faith ingovernment. His whole life was spent establishing the legitimacy of agovernment of laws, not of people but of laws. And um, it would have beendeeply upsetting to him to think that, you know, you know, anyone wouldactively undermine what the country is trying to do in serving its peoplebecause that was the purpose of his journeys. That was really the purposeof his presidency. You know, the union, the union was what Washington was allabout. And so, you know, I think modern politicians could take a lesson fromhim. He was, he was perfectly willing to risk unpopularity by reaching acrossthe divide. You know, when he became president, America was alreadypolitically divided. It wasn't republican democrat, it was federalistswho believed in a strong national government and anti federals whobelieve that the state should obtain more power. And when he becamepresident to states, Rhode island and north Carolina had not even ratifiedthe constitution. And so what does he do? He first thing he does when Rhodeisland ratifies the constitution, is get on a sailboat sail to Rhode islandand meet the people who were the most reluctant in the country to embracewhat he represented. And sure enough, he turned the greatest skeptics inAmerica into some of his biggest fans. It is fascinating and you give us sucha, almost a personal picture of his journeys and his thoughts and it'sobviously things that I wasn't taught in school. It's so great to read themagain now with more thought behind them. But as you were researching andfollowing 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 puffpiece about George Washington. I had deep reservations. Is followingWashington at this time, in our history, the right thing, you know, a time whenwe're questioning the origins of this country. I came away from Lee believingit is uh he is a good tour guide, but this is a flawed individual. This was aman who was a slave owner at age 11 when his father died and he inheritedseveral enslaved people. And by the end of his life he would of course free hisenslaved 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 complexrelationship with slavery was part of literally what he grew up with, but hecame to realize after the revolution that, you know, slavery was was wrongand that it needed to be dealt with if his dream of a union was going tosurvive. And so this is someone who had...

...the ability to question the assumptionswith which he grew up with. He never completely was able to free himselffrom those assumptions. Uh, In the book, I talk about, uh, even almost on theday he died, he was pursuing owner judge, a woman who had served as hiswife Martha's house served. She escaped in in philadelphia fled to newHampshire. And Washington at Martha's insistence kept making active attemptsto capture her and bring her back. And yet at the same time, he was writing inhis will to free his enslaved people on his plantation. This is a complicatedstory. And if we are going to understand the complicated origins ofthis 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 facethe future. Yep, the mythology of whether it's a city or a person or ahistory 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 holesin his coat, but he wasn't injured. And, you know, there was the mythology thathe was divine and these things start to grow, right. These ideas about who ourfounders 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 thiscomplicated and we have to be willing to look at both. And in that starbooklist review, it says, Philbrick moves from one centuries point of viewto another's perceptively observing what has changed and what has not. Heparticularly notes the past and current legacy of slaveholding, whether in thenorth or south and like you just talked about as a historian until now fromreading the rest of your novels. Well, they're not novels reading the rest ofyour books, you have mostly veered away from overt political commentary andcontroversy, but here you waited directly into it. And like we talkedabout pulled back the veil on the mythology, which was unavoidable. Ifyou were going to be honest, when I was writing surviving savannah, Iinterviewed this museum curator who used this phrase that I kept thinkingabout when I was reading your book, which is emancipating the past. Mhm AndI know this is probably your most personal book to date. But I want youto talk to us about that about what...

...emancipating the past means to you inthis book and how it felt more personal this time. Yeah. Well this is a verypersonal book and but emancipating the past is a very apt phrase becausethat's integrate it is and you know, the past has to be rediscovered byevery generation because every generation looks back on a differentperspective. Uh, you know, when you look at how this country began with thedeclaration 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 everyonewhen we look at it. That's and yet the truth, there is things happened backthen that have a tent, we have a tendency to try to bend what happenedto meet where we are today. Um, and you know, it's, it's we're almost lookingin a mirror because what we want to see is what we tend to find when, notnecessarily, that's the way it was. And so with this book for me, the past isso much more interesting. If you look at it warts and all, if you look atthere are good people, there are bad people. Most of us are somewhere inbetween and someone like Washington is endlessly inspiring for me because heunderstood the failings of his society. He understood many of his personal filmthat didn't mean he was able to leave the life of the Saint. No one on thisearth can do that. But he was struggling and that is the essentialthing. And as soon as you refuse to see him in his weakest and most disturbingmoments, you really robbed him of his humanity. And, and, and so this is whathistory 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 apedestal. History changes evolves. One of the people I talked to aboutWashington's legacy in providence said, you know, history keeps breaking theice. You know, it's, it's just ongoing. It's kind of scary because you seethings, you know, your, your previous generation didn't want to see. Um, andyet 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 werevery much like us struggling as best they could and inevitably failing, buttrying 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 adecide here. His trip took him as far...

...north as Kittery Point Maine and thenSavannah, which was the southernmost city as you said that he visited. Andof course Patty writes about that city quite a bit and she says that there's aplaque in johnson square about Washington's visit to the city and I'msure there probably is one in every state he visited. You mentioned a fewof them, you know, Washington slept here. Data data that do you feel thatthere was a city that he loved more than any others or a place that hereally 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, andseeing the people, it actually made, it was good for his help. You know, assoon as he became president, he started to come down with a series of diseasesthat almost killed him and he realized he had to get out of the office if hewas going to live through his presidency. And so this was, this wasnot a road trip. Just to see America, this was the road trip to save his lifeand the presidency. And so I think just about every town, You know, he reallyenjoyed it. You know, you and what fascinated me was the accounts I wouldget 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 ather gait as she sees George Washington on a horse riding by. And just as he'scoming across the street from her, they're building the one roomschoolhouse will be there for for decades. And you know, Washington was atall man. He was 6264 inches, a giant, relatively speaking. And he gets offhis 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 youknow, 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 partiesthey 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 onthe friday of, of Pat ST Patrick's day weekend. Now I had been, I, my wife andI had really no clue that ST Patrick's day was that big and some my anyway, solike 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 inSavannah, 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 thebiggest party I've ever been a part of the past is right there with you. Sotrue. So true. Savannah such a special place. So reading the book. It made mekind of want to go back and see some of the cities that I have visitedpreviously with a new thought about them based on what you had shared inthe book. What are the top cities that you think people ought to revisit andkind 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 Ihave to say Savannah and charleston high on the list as any of them bostonsurprised. You know, I think I was born in boston. I thought I knew bostonpretty well. But you go in following Washington. It's a very differentperspective, 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 carand it's like oh you know that's where the Liberty tree would have been if ithadn't been chopped down during the revolution. You know, there's all thisthing and it all just sort of comes together and so that was reallyfascinating. The whole tour up New England, what we became fascinated bywhere these little towns that uh you know, I was used to being on thehighway getting off the exit and finding myself in the middle of thetown, not really knowing how it was connected to anything around it. But wewere following Washington's route, realizing how route one became the mainstreet of each town. And you begin to see the organic nature of thesettlements of New England. So I, fortunately was really interesting town.The quiet corner of Connecticut, the northeastern corner, we had neverreally ventured into their but after that melissa and I are thinking ofgetting a second home there. It was just such an interesting place, a quietcorner we had never known existed just an hour outside of providence Rhodeisland. But and then the other one is philadelphia of course, you know thisyou know, it's hard to get beat philadelphia, its historic core. It'sjust there, the origins of America institutionally are there. And this iswhere our travels with George technically ended. And one of thethings I wanted to make sure was Dora melissa and I needed to get a horsedrawn carriage and there is a great company that gives you historic toursof philadelphia on a horse drawn carriage. And so Dora melissa and I goton there, the, the horse's name was appropriately spot, you know, a dog'sname 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. Youknow, looking at Tolars are kind of very intense dogs and she's lookingaround almost as if she's listening to the tour guide is, he's uh, deliveringhistory 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 streetsof philadelphia a lot. But there's something about having a specificpurpose in your journey. You know, when you're, we were following somebody thatmade all the difference. And finally I just have to end with the interiorsouth 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 gaveus a tour and it was just revelatory and then Camden south Carolina. Just abeautiful little town full of history And uh, you know, and then on up intothe old Salem, which is one of the, you've got to go there, you know, thisold Arabian village that is now a museum. And you know, where history istruly still alive and where Washington sat on the deck of the porch listeningto a Moravian brass band serenaded, you know, so images like that where youknow, you just have to be there to really begin to understand it. Mhm. Ithink you need to start a tour company. I was just thinking, I think I want togo on this tour. So, and that because my husband Pat Henry loved this book somuch. I promised him I'd ask one of his questions and he wants to know halfjoking what was more impactful for you. Your sailboat accident in Nantucket orlanding in ST Patrick's day savannah. Well, they were both storms, I have tosay. Uh, you know, we, uh, we were of course driving most of the time. Butwhen Washington visited Rhode island, he did it by sea. I think as I alludedto earlier, he learned that Rhode island had ratified the constitution.He hops on a schooner, sales from new york, which was then the temporarycapital 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 toNewport and we were really excited. It was fun. We've decided not to take Dorain this instance, thank goodness because On our 2nd day we had just leftMartha'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 ofthe ocean and I talk about just having,...

...you know, you're well. So I saidmelissa, let's get our life jackets on. I turned on the engine, we started totake 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 wesurvive since I'm talking to you. But it was melissa and I are still hauntedby it. We really are. We, we, I was, I was at a book signing down south justbefore Covid hit and we were driving back from the event to the hotel andthe radio station said, you know, tornado warnings, you know melissa justOh 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 stilllive there and all the Washington, loved coming to the south, There was asignificant part of that that was challenging for him. But hisperspective shifted when he visited. And I'm wondering if your perspectiveor views of the south shifted it all by visiting these places. You've mentionedlike Augusta and Camden in savannah and charleston. Did you have a preconceivednotion that shifted just as Washington's did? Yeah, you'reabsolutely right about Washington. We think of him as a southerner becauseVirginia Virginia, but he had never really been to north Carolina. SouthCarolina Georgia. He knew the mid atlantic and New England area muchbetter than his own supposed region. And, and he was, you know, when he wentsouth, it was when many of the new policies of his administration,especially when it came to a tax on whiskey where there were unpopular. Andso he went down there with warning, dire warnings, you know, that they willnot 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 goodof the country. You know, not look beyond yourself that not that theycompletely sold, but you know, he made progress in that regard melissa and Ihad spent a year in the south melissa's first job out of college was at thevalentine museum in enrichment and I had been at Duke getting a masters andwe love the south. But you can't live in any place for a year and say, youknow it, but you know, we were and so...

...we were really looking forward to itand 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 onthere. And so we were kind of in the midst of that and, and you know, um youhave a, you get the news reports and you know, that sort of gives you asense, but I have to say you have to go to a place, you have to be there, youhave 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 havean 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'rekind of sort of missed the point of the whole exercise. It really is to ventureoutside of the perspective outside of your comfort zone and try to understandother people. And, and so for us, it was a, it was a process of doingexactly 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 aprocess of, I don't write these books is on an expert in the field, I writethese books because I want to know more about the topic that I just haven'tread 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. Thiswas not just history, this was learning about our country today. Learning abouthuman nature, you know, having discussions with people that I neverwould have anticipated, and you know, and that's it, a journey. Uh, you don'tknow where you're going to end up. That's the, you know, as soon as youthink, you know, where you're going, the journey will completely throw yourpreconceptions out the window and that's what it's all about. Everyonecould stay as curious and open as you and melissa and Dora. I think the wholenation would be in a better spot. Right, Well, thank you. But uh, you know, oneof the things, listen, I still talk about it today about, you know, thenews will, something will come up about, you know, our ever widening divide andabout 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 historyhas taught me and particularly this journey is humility as soon as youjudge others, as soon as you think you figured it out. Um, things will changein 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 knowtheir past due to repeat it, I have to say, no matter how much you know aboutyour past, it doesn't help you all that much today. I mean, it should teach youonly humility word, you know, those of us who are so self righteous in ourstands today. Uh, if we were, you know, wait 100 years and people will bewondering, what would they think much as you're doing the same, looking back100 years. So, uh, this was Washington's great point when his twocabinet members, alexander Hamilton and thomas, Jefferson started, you know,arguing with each other is virtual warfare. And it was a personal frictionthat mirrored what was happening in the country. And he just and his point wasas soon as you're pushing your point so hard that others are in uproar maybeshould just think, well, what's their point? Is there something in the middlethat is perhaps better for everyone That's, that was there's a wisdom fromthat we gained from this journey and from this is getting to know, George itwas that, you know, um yes, we have our beliefs but just retain a sense ofempathy, humility. Yeah, right, wow, Well, this book is just amazing and Ijust thank you so much for sharing all of this with us today. We couldprobably talk for three weeks I think about all this. There's a lot, a lot tosay. So encourage everybody to get their hands on the book and dig rightin. 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 Inever learned in school and it really opened up my thinking. So I soappreciate that. But where can people learn more about you and the book andwhere can they find you online? Yeah, Nathaniel Philbrick dot com is mywebsite. I'm also on the socials instagram and facebook and if you haveany interest in Dora, there's plenty about Dora uh in the instagram. She's anova Scotia duck, tolling retriever and also my research assistant. So thankyou both. It was wonderful to have a chance to speak with you. Yeah, well thank you for tuning into thistruly special episode. Don't forget to share with a friend and don't forget topreorder 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 toour collective lifelong love of reading and imagination patty. You've reallyoutdone yourself with this one and I can't wait to talk to you in depthabout it on a future podcast. Thank you Ron that book absolutely stole a pieceof my heart. But right now everyone go...

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

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