Always a Place for History: An Interview with Henry Wiencek
by Lydia Williams
Author Henry Wiencek is a senior research fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities in Charlottesville. His latest book is An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America. His previous book, The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award in biography. A narrative history of two extended families linked by history and blood, The Hairstons traces their story from colonial times to the present and examines the legacy of slavery. Wiencek was series editor of The Smithsonian Guide to Historic America. He is also the author of Old Houses, Mansions of the Virginia Gentry, Plantations of the Old South, and several books for Time-Life. With his wife, Donna Lucey, Wiencek wrote The National Geographic Guide to America's Great Houses. He has contributed articles to American Heritage, American Legacy, Smithsonian Magazine, and Connoisseur. In 2003, Wiencek was appointed to the board of the Library of Virginia.
VL: Your most recent books are a departure from your earlier publications about architecture. My first question is, what led you to write your first historical work–the chronicle of a prominent Virginia family, the Hairstons?
HW: My most recent books are a departure from what I wrote about earlier in my career, but they are built on that work. When I wrote Mansions of the Virginia Gentry, Plantations of the Old South, and Old Houses, I saw Southern history through the lenses of the families who lived in these homes. I saw history as very strongly and specifically rooted in place, and history came to me in that way–in a much less abstract fashion. It was much more concrete. It also strengthens across the centuries because you are able to see the growth of a family in a particular place and trace that family over many generations. It was out of that context that I began working on the book about the Hairston family, which had been a failed chapter of Old Houses. I was going to do a 2,000-word chapter on the Hairston family and the Cooleemee Plantation. It so happened that the photographers were having a bad day when they came to Cooleemee; the pictures didn't turn out to their liking, so the chapter was dropped. That left me with all this basic introductory material about the family. I was fascinated by the continued relationship and interaction between the black and white sides of the family as revealed by the material, so I decided to pursue this project.
VL: I imagine that researching famous Virginia families such as the Hairstons could easily become an obsession. It seems that one could get so wrapped up in unraveling all the facts as to get lost in the past. How does it feel to become immersed in the past, as you have done in writing your last two books?
HW: At times you can begin to feel that you're losing your mind, because you become so deeply immersed in the specifics of a family's history. You begin to feel like you should know everything–but then you run into dead ends or blank spots, which can become very frustrating. You also have to guard against seeing things that aren't there. You have to guard against overinterpreting things, especially when researching the life of someone like George Washington. You feel from the start that you should be able to find out everything you want to know about the man, but you begin to realize that there are many gaps. But when you hit those gaps it can be so frustrating that you can begin to feel a loss of mental balance. As a writer, you have to adjust to dealing with this type of situation. This type of thing happened more with the book about the Hairston family, because I had such a profusion of records to deal with, and it seemed that every document had something to say. There was a story behind every piece of paper. But many times, it was just a fragment of a story, or a distorted story, and that began to drive me nuts after awhile. But when you just keep pounding away, sometimes you find the answers.
VL: What inspired you to write a book about George Washington?
HW: It came out of a couple of things. One was finding out that near the end of the war a quarter of Washington's army consisted of black men. I had not known that, and it was startling to me, because it shows the tremendous debt this country owes to African Americans. That led me to think that there was a whole, almost unknown, military history to talk about from that time. That led to another question. What was George Washington's response to seeing this loyalty and courage displayed by thousands of black men during the war? And, after seeing that, why didn't he end slavery then and there? That was the question I brought to the book. The other issue that interested me was the possibility that Washington might have had a child with a slave. That question entered the public eye, I believe, in 1999 after the Jefferson-Hemings issue surfaced. The slave in question is West Ford, and some of his descendants came forward and said that Washington was his father. Mt. Vernon said no, Washington was not his father, but West Ford may have been one of Washington's nephews. It is impossible to come to any conclusion about this, but that was another aspect of Washington's life that led me into the story.
VL: After reading your book, I wondered how the wealthy in Colonial America could overlook the poverty and pain of those around them and not feel any compassion for their slaves. It seems to me that the first families of the new world had a desire for land, wealth, and power, but they felt that the only way they could have it all was by holding onto their slaves. Do you think that greed blinded them to all the negative aspects of enslaving other human beings?
HW: I think that they did close their eyes to the poverty all around them–partly out of greed, but partly because the people in that era had a very hierarchical view of the world. They all seemed to accept that there were a few people at the top with a lot of money and all the power, and that there were a few people below them in what we might call a middle class, and there were a lot of people at the bottom who were white, black, or mixed, whose lot in life was very harsh, and that was the way it was. They really couldn't imagine changing that on a large scale. I think that we have much more compassion for the less fortunate today than they did then. That is a separate issue from the evil of slavery. We have this problem where we encounter masters like George Washington, who was not cruel to his slaves. He did hold slaves, but he finally saw the evils of slavery and eventually tried to do away with it. Interestingly, he never spoke out about the harshness of the conditions these people lived under; what troubled him was the mere ownership of human beings, and that families could be broken apart–husbands and wives separated, children separated from their families–that struck Washington as the real horror in slavery. This is where the greed comes in, because the people from his social and political station in the South did not want to give up the enormous wealth in human beings that they held. If they had to pay off a debt or build a new house, they would sell slaves. It was like their stock portfolio. This was the wealth they would pass on to their children and grandchildren. If the government came out today and said they planned to launch a major antitrust suit against Microsoft and dismember the company, causing stock prices to tumble, don't you think everyone who had huge holdings in Microsoft would go to the government and say, "Don't do this"? It was the same thing with slave property. When the Quakers submitted petitions to Congress in 1790 about emancipation, Washington got a letter from one of his relatives saying, "The market prices for slaves in Virginia are tumbling because you folks up there in Washington are talking about emancipation. You had better cut it out."
VL: If you could step back in time and visit George Washington, what would you ask him?
HW: I would like to ask him about his wartime experiences. I would ask him what it was like at the battle of New York when we almost lost the revolution, or crossing the Delaware River at Christmas when it was blowing a blizzard and conditions were so horrible. He was a man of incredible persistence and resoluteness. But, on the other hand, he probably wouldn't talk to me, because he was aloof and standoffish. The subject he most liked to talk about was farming, and I don't really have any great interest in that. But some people said that if you could get him talking about the revolution, he would. He did discuss his adventures in the wilderness with one of his biographers, David Humphries, who was one of his aides at Mt. Vernon in 1787-88. They discussed his experiences in the French and Indian War, but not his early days as a surveyor. I would ask him about the war.
VL: What is the most difficult aspect of doing research for a book?
HW: What's at the top of the list? Knowing when you have found everything that is to be found. That's hard. When do you keep looking? When do you cut your losses? The other thing is interpreting ambiguous documents that more or less stand alone, when you are unable to find other documents that shed light on them. I think the main thing is trying to understand how people thought over 200 years ago. Trying to get at their processes of thought, their moral system, their belief system so that you can present history accurately from their point of view. It's difficult. You want to present what they were doing, saying, and thinking, without imposing too much of your own interpretation.
VL: How would you rate Virginia libraries in regard to the resources they have available for research?
HW: Superb, absolutely su-perb! Well, we are sitting right here at Alderman, and I love it–it's my home away from home. The facilities here are just magnificent, and because it's a public institution, this library is open to all citizens of the Commonwealth. If you were in New York and tried to use the facilities of Columbia University, you couldn't do it. You would have to pay a hefty fee to get access to their libraries, and then they might not allow you to have access to their resources, because it's a private institution. The fact that the greatest library in this region is in a public institution insures that the public has free access to this information. The private institutions such as Harvard also have many restrictions when using their materials. It's difficult and expensive to copy things. But here at the University of Virginia, they are very open and welcoming, and they believe in the free flow of information. I couldn't have written my last two books without the resources at Alderman, the Library of Virginia, and other regional libraries in Virginia. The library staff members in Virginia are extremely helpful. They're always looking for extra ways to help you. I would give them the highest rating.
VL: Tell me your most interesting story in regard to researching your book about George Washington.
HW: Getting to meet the members of Washington's family on the farm where Washington was born was probably the most interesting event related to the research. That was yet another of my encounters with the notion of the continuity of history. History lives on in families. Families really embody our connection with the past. That incident of meeting with the family on their farm that I described in the book is an example of the continuity of family and the continuity of place. These two continuities–places and families–are preserved more in the South than in the North. That is one of the reasons why I think history is felt to be so much more alive here in the South than it is elsewhere.
VL: What was the most startling thing that you uncovered in your research?
HW: I was stunned to learn that Martha Washington had a half-sister who was black, and I was stunned to learn that it had gotten into a congressional report that I believe was published in 1871, but no historian or biographer had ever mentioned it. It was so taboo that they wouldn't touch it. Maybe they didn't know about it, but I have a sense that someone must have run across it at some point. That was the most startling thing.
VL: In doing your research, did you unearth some resource that no one else had discovered?
HW: The information mentioned above. Also, there was some information about slave trading that Martha's family had been involved in, and that had never been mentioned before. This information showed up in an account book that was part of a collection of materials housed at Tudor Place in Georgetown.
VL: Works of historical nonfiction can sometimes be rather dull, but both your books make history come to life in a way that grabs the reader. You really do have a way with the written word. How are you able to take the facts and weave them into a book that reads like a novel?
HW: It is a lot of work. It comes out of my acquaintance with the descendants or relatives of the people I have written about. Those people have a personal contact to the past, and when I talk with them, in a sense, I feel I have that connection too. When you shake hands with someone who is blood kin to George Washington, it is exciting. It gives you a sense that history is very much alive. The other thing that I try to put on paper is the excitement I feel when I find something no one else has found before. If I am feeling elated, shocked, or surprised, or if I feel that this opens a new dimension of the past, that is an excitement I try to put on the page without leading the reader by the nose. That's another critical thing–you can't tell people how to feel or how to think, but there are ways of writing things so the reader can feel the author's excitement of discovery. And a lot of this is new. One thing that those who write about this era battle against is the idea held by the public that everything is already known about George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. But that's not true. We're discovering new things all the time. So I think if you can express in your writing the drama of these new discoveries, then people will realize that history is still unfolding–it is not finished.
VL: Can you share information about the next book you're planning to write?
HW: It will be about Thomas Jefferson and his slaves. I am in the middle of my research, and plan to start the writing process very soon. I am a little behind, but I have a great deal of enthusiasm, which makes up for it. I think I'm going to do something similar with Jefferson to what I did with Washington. I plan to spend more time than other writers would in painting the context around Jefferson. I see him in terms of his county and his region. There were other people who were wrestling with the same problems as Jefferson. When we look at great leaders of the past, we tend to see them in isolation. We have Jefferson on his mountaintop or Washington on his horse, but we don't see them fully enough in their context–especially in regard to their domestic lives, with slavery being a part of that. During this era, there were many families in central Virginia like the Jeffersons who were wrestling with the slavery issue. I want to bring in some of the things that were happening around Jefferson; I also want to bring in a fuller picture of the African American world at that time. There were enclaves of free blacks in various parts of Virginia then, which contradicts Jefferson's assertion that the slaves were not ready to be free. There was evidence all around that the slaves were perfectly ready. So I want to paint the full context of Jefferson's world.
VL: How long does it take you to research and write a book?
HW: It varies tremendously. The Hairstons took eight years. Washington took a little over three years, and I plan to have this book on Jefferson completed in two years. It's the research that burns up so much time. I know more now than I did when writing my first two books. As a writer, you have to realize when to stop. It's when you get to a certain point and realize that a particular avenue of research is just not going to work out–you aren't finding the information you thought you would, or the information isn't going to fit into the story, or it's just not that interesting. That's when you have to dump it, and not spend any more time on it. But some writers try to stick in everything they've come across, and that can make the book unreadable. It is a tradeoff, but you must strive for perfection to the greatest extent possible.
VL: Now that we know something about your career as a writer and your two most recent books, would you feel comfortable sharing a little bit about your life apart from your writing?
HW: I'm completely wrapped up in my writing and my family. I don't go fishing, I don't hunt, I don't work on cars, I don't do any of that stuff. On the weekends I do yard work with my wife, which I really enjoy. We often go for hikes together with our dog in the hills outside of Charlottesville. Our son is now off at college, and I miss him tremendously, because we used to do a lot of things together around town. But the life of a writer can be dull; yet the interior life of a writer can be very exciting.
VL: Your wife is also the author of several works of nonfiction. What's it like being married to another writer?
HW: It's great being married to a writer. We read each other's drafts and give each other advice. I can give her help with the computer. We really help each other a lot. It is nice being married to someone who is sympathetic to your problems, but not too sympathetic. We both know when to start pushing each other so that we can get a project moving.
VL: What author do you most admire?
HW: I enjoy reading the works of other historians. I enjoyed reading David Hackett Fischer's new book, Washington's Crossing. I greatly admire the late Bruce Chatwin for his travel essays. Although his work is called nonfiction, I do think he made things up from time to time–but his work is absolutely gripping to read and beautifully done.
VL: What do you enjoy most about living in Virginia?
HW: The wonderful people! Everybody here is very friendly. I have lived in Virginia since 1992, and I really don't want to leave. It's the character of the people living here that makes Virginia so wonderful.