10 questions with Russell Shorto

In January 2018, I had the privilege to interview Russell Shorto for “10 questions.” Shorto is the author of Revolution Song: A Story of American Freedom.

Shorto is noted for his work in narrative history. He is the author of six books, a contributor to the New Yorker, and is currently contemplating a historical work – about the present.

Photo courtesy of Russell Shorto

Kurt Manwaring: Welcome! Before we begin could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you came up with the idea for Revolution Song?

Russell Shorto: I write about the past but I’m less interested in historical argument than in lived experience: what it felt like.

Probably about eight years ago I hit on the idea to write a broad narrative of the revolutionary era that wove together the stories of a diverse group of people. I didn’t want to focus exclusively on the men in the powdered wigs, though I wanted them to be represented as well. What did it feel like to be a slave in the era? What was a woman’s life like? I spent two years “auditioning” people for roles in the book.

They had to be people whose lives were well documented, of course, and I also wanted to find people who crossed paths with one another, which would allow me to write a single narrative. In time I settled on six people: a shoemaker, an Iroquois, the daughter of a British officer, a slave who frees himself and his family, a British aristocrat, and George Washington.

Although I wanted people who give different perspectives, once I settled on them I was determined not to force them into representative molds but to allow them to be themselves. I also wanted to tell their story chronologically, from birth to death, so that we would see the Revolution as just one event in their lives.

 

Kurt Manwaring: Would you tell us how you first got interested in history?

Russell Shorto: I suppose I’ve always taken a historical view of things. On my first trip to Jerusalem, I was simply overpowered by the sense of it in the air. History was like a thick cloud, threatening to choke you. As a writer my tendency is to try to go to the origins. With my journalism as well, I tend to dig beneath the present story to get at its roots. That said, I didn’t study history in college. Maybe I had a predisposition against the “guild.” I did however devour history courses in other disciplines: history of philosophy, art history.

 

Kurt Manwaring: What are your thoughts on the role of artistic narrative and storytelling in history — including the risks and advantages?

Russell Shorto: History is storytelling.  We make meaning for ourselves by telling stories about the past.

As far as I’m concerned, the story needs to be properly sourced — the reader needs to know the bases on which the author’s narrative rests. The risks are that you get things wrong. That’s why you footnote: so that your reader can check, and can challenge or dispute or argue with you.

There is always grounds for disagreement. This has to do with the nature of reality, of time and memory. No two adult siblings will remember events from their childhood in the same way. That extends into writing about events from centuries ago.

The writer needs to approach the material with a certain amount of caution and humility. And the reader needs some understanding of these things as well. 

 

Kurt Manwaring: Who are some of today’s most effective narrative historians?

Russell Shorto: I don’t really think of writers in terms of categories like that. I just know that I glom onto certain books. I mean, Robert Hughes was an art critic, but The Fatal Shore was a monumental work of narrative history about the founding of Australia. Jonathan Israel’s books probably wouldn’t be considered “narrative,” but they appeal to me more than many other books that are classified as such. Bob Dylan’s memoir is a kind of history, written with a voice and control of narrative that is seductive.

I have a fondness for idiosyncratic histories written with verve. Tom Standage wrote a terrific little book called The Turk, about the chess-playing machine that confounded people for about a century; books like that grab me.

 

Kurt Manwaring: What are one or two books that have had a significant influence on how and why you write?

Russell Shorto: James Joyce’s Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Reading them (as a young man) gave me a jolt of awareness of what words could do, how a writer could train and direct the stream of words to expand reality, to create new realities that rode alongside ours, to invite you right into a character’s mind.

 

Kurt Manwaring: If you could have added a seventh character in Revolution Song, who would it have been? Were there any figures who nearly made the cut but just didn’t quite fit?

Russell Shorto: Molly Brant. She was a Mohawk leader, the sister of the influential Mohawk known as Joseph Brant, and the consort (for want of a better word) of Sir William Johnson. She’s a deeply intriguing figure who straddles the Indian and white worlds. I ended up not using her because I wanted to be able to tell each subject’s story from birth to death, and while we have a good deal of information about certain parts of her life other parts are completely blank. I regret, however, only having one woman among the six people I settled on. In all, I probably “auditioned” somewhere between 100 and 200 people.

 

Kurt Manwaring: What prominent Revolution-era American is most misunderstood by contemporary Americans?

Russell Shorto: I guess what intrigues me is the way our understanding of some of the big names of the era changes over time. Jefferson used to be a huge figure in Americans’ awareness of the Revolution: author of the Declaration, noble genius, all of that. Then things changed and he became predominantly known as a slaveholder. Hamilton long had a minor status, and now look at him. It’s not like one portrait was wrong and eventually got corrected; it’s that who we are keeps changing, so our sense of the past does. Which of course is why we keep writing new histories.

 

Kurt Manwaring: Revolution Song seems as if it would have been incredibly difficult to purposefully research with the intention of weaving together separate narratives. You can’t exactly do a revolutionary equivalent of an instant “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” search. Doing the research manually could get out of hand so quickly. I’m curious about the mechanics of your research process. Did you set out with a plan and create a database? Did you just dive into the material and hope for a bit of serendipity to get you started? How did it work?

Russell Shorto: I set out with the idea to write the life stories of a group of very diverse people from the era. In order to make it one story, I wanted to find people whose lives fit or overlapped in some way.

But I didn’t want to force the connections.

Originally I had a notion that I would have two main figures, both of whom were soldiers, one a loyalist and one a patriot, and the others would all group around them, and maybe they would square off in battle at some point. But it didn’t pan out that way.

As you suggest, when you’re writing nonfiction you can’t create a plot. I did indeed dive in and hope for serendipity. In doing so, I was relying on past experience. I’ve found that there’s always serendipity in researching history. There are strange connections and cross-themes and linkages one didn’t anticipate. And they arose in this book.

I knew going in that there were some outright connections between some of the subjects, mostly involving Washington: for example, Washington worked with Yates during the war; Washington and Cornplanter met twice after the war; and Washington and the teenaged Margaret Moncrieffe had a remarkable series of encounters in Manhattan as the British were preparing to invade. But beyond that there were these marvelous parallels that I only saw once I was deep in the material. Washington, Venture Smith and Cornplanter all had similar father issues: Washington lost his father at about the same age that Venture Smith did, and Cornplanter’s father was a white man who left his village when he was still a child.

So all three personalities developed around the absence of a father. Then you have the 18th century notion of honor, which turns out to have meant quite similar things around the world: in Tidewater Virginia and in the African savanna where Venture Smith spent his childhood.

 

Kurt Manwaring: In 2016, as part of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, the Church Historians Press published the minutes from an exclusive Mormon council formed in 1844, the Council of Fifty. The minutes include discussions with Joseph Smith and other early Mormon leaders who were frustrated with their inability to secure protections against violent enemies from the U.S. government. The sense of desperation was so extreme they even flirted with forming a new government — and foremost among their goals was protecting religious freedoms. Do these extreme yearnings for freedom and protection echo those of any figures from the American Revolution or other eras you have studied? 

Russell Shorto: Freedom was in the air in the 18th century. We know this, of course. But we don’t often appreciate how widespread it was.

The freedom wave began building in earnest in the mid 1600s, amid the Dutch Enlightenment. By the 1760s, it was everywhere. The genius of the American leaders was in focusing it onto their political cause. But quite early — in the 1600s — people were talking about freedoms to which women were entitled, and people were arguing that slavery was morally wrong, and pushing for education for all. It struck me in the midst of my writing that all of the people I chose as protagonists were dealing with this freedom wave in one way or another.

 

Kurt Manwaring: If you lived another 250 years and were tasked with writing a version of Revolution Song based on 2018, which six specific individuals would you weave into the story and why?

Russell Shorto: What an excellent and provocative question. It certainly seems from this vantage that we are at a crossroads, in which the values that were fought for during the Revolution are at stake. And I for one don’t hold any feeling of certainty that those values will win out.

Corporations have become so powerful, and Trump and the Republican Party are lined up with with them to the detriment of ordinary people and the primacy of universal values. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press and of religion: these have been under pretty violent and overt attack over the past year or so.

What will happen in the next few years? Without being able to see the outcome of our current crisis, it’s hard to pick subjects to base a present-day Revolution Song on.

But off the top of my head, I would have to include Donald Trump in something like the role that Lord George Germain plays in Revolution Song: the powerful figure who is stupendously on the wrong side of justice. Maybe I’d pick Oprah Winfrey as a thoroughgoing contrast to him but who is intertwined with him through celebrity. I don’t hold out much hope for the regular people in the coming years; I think the deck was stacked against us long ago. If I’m right (and I hope I’m wrong), then the book would feature people who represent the forces arrayed against ordinary people. So you might have someone like a Jeff Bezos and someone like a Rebekah Mercer: people who represent big data and big money. And maybe a “dreamer,” a teenaged girl from Guatemala, say. And a middle-aged, out-of-work factory employee in the midwest.

 

Kurt Manwaring: You have published quite a bit on a number of diverse historical topics ranging from ancient Christian manuscripts to the actual remains of Descartes to the Revolutionary War. If you could tackle a topic in a field entirely outside of history, what book would you most want to write?

Russell Shorto: I’m tempted to fudge a bit and say there is no field that is entirely outside of history. Right now I have a particular idea for a book that would be centered in the present. But the present is part of history. As James Baldwin said, people are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.

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