Tell us about yourself. How long have you lived in Southwest Virginia and what brought you here?
I grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, with my sole regret being a B that I received in ninth grade phys ed from Coach Bill Yost, who was later portrayed in the movie “Remember the Titans.” I shortly attended Dartmouth College, followed by Johns Hopkins for my graduate degrees. I arrived at Virginia Tech as a history instructor in 1977.
What drew you to study history?
Passion, which is likely in my DNA insofar as my late father was a professor of American intellectual history. Although he never pushed me to study history, I deeply admired his many books, not least the “Decline of American Liberalism,” a history charting the erosion of civil liberties in the United States that he courageously wrote at the height of the McCarthy era. Infinitely fascinating, history, at its best, enables us to make sense of how human beings have acted under a changing array of circumstances. To be sure, historians are gravediggers, restricted by the evidence bequeathed by the “angel of death.” And, yes, while the past does not repeat itself, it does, in Mark Twain’s memorable description, occasionally rhyme.
Your new book “American Sanctuary” is the story of the mutiny on the HMS Hermione in 1797. Can you tell us more about what happened in this event and why it is important?
On an overcast night in September 1797, in the midst of the most storied epoch in British seafaring history, the bloodiest mutiny ever suffered by the Royal Navy erupted aboard the frigate HMS Hermione, manned by a crew of over 150 men. Slashed by cutlasses, their skulls crushed by tomahawks, 10 officers, including Captain Hugh Pigot and a 14-year-old midshipman, were heaved overboard into the tropical waters of the Caribbean.
Set against the backdrop of two revolutions and naval wars entangling Britain, France, and the United States, the mutiny had profound repercussions in the United States, a favored sanctuary for untold numbers of mutineers. John Adams, in one of the most catastrophic blunders of his presidency, authorized the extradition in 1799 of Jonathan Robbins, a purported native of Connecticut who had been impressed by the Royal Navy. Great Britain insisted that the seaman was really the mutiny’s notorious ringleader, the Irishman Thomas Nash. His subsequent execution in Jamaica ignited a political firestorm in America. Not only did the martyrdom of Robbins, immortalized as a freedom fighter against British tyranny, powerfully influence the tumultuous presidential election of 1800, but it also helped to shape the infant republic’s identity — how Americans envisioned both themselves and the country’s larger destiny.
What pushed you to write this book? Has it been a long time in the making?
Ignorance — that of previous historians as well as my own, which added to the subject’s appeal. Although the topic has been hiding in plain view for years, it has largely gone unnoticed, much less been fully explored. After stumbling across sources pertaining to the Hermione eight years ago, I was hooked.
How are the issues raised during the mutiny and its aftermath still relevant today?
The major themes of the book — the abuse of presidential power, immigration, citizenship — still resonate powerfully. Equally important is the issue of political asylum. The Hermione crisis led directly to America’s adoption of granting political asylum to foreign refugees, a major achievement in fulfilling the country’s iconic pledge, dating to the American Revolution, to provide an “asylum for mankind.” Today, rarely in modern American history has the issue of asylum assumed greater urgency in light of the massive exodus of refugees from the Middle East, northern Africa, and Central America, many fearing for their lives, whether from war, repressive regimes, or drug cartels. We should remain true to our historic identity in affording political fugitives a haven, all the while encouraging other democracies to follow our example. On this issue, it is no time for the United States to lead from behind.
You’ve also written about the history of segmented sleep. Can you explain what segmented sleep is and why you are studying it?
Segmented sleep, consisting of a “first sleep” and a ”second sleep,” was the dominant form of human slumber in the Western world prior to the late 19th century. Typically, individuals retired sometime between 9 and 10 p.m., awakened shortly past midnight, did practically anything and everything imaginable for an hour or so (prayer, household chores, making love), and then they took a second respite until dawn. (Ironically, in researching my book “At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past,” I dreaded having to include the topic of sleep, mistakenly assuming that it was a universal constant about which there was little new to unearth.) In many instances, rather than a sleep disorder, the most common form of insomnia in the U.S. today, “middle-of-the-night insomnia,” very likely is a powerful echo of this much older, arguably more natural pattern of slumber. The sleep medicine community has been remarkably supportive in embracing this research, which upends our traditional notion of what constitutes “normal” sleep — pretty heady stuff for a guy who could barely light a Bunsen burner in high school chemistry,
Do you experience segmented sleep yourself? What do you do when you wake up? Do you write?
Only when it is self-induced do I sometimes experience this biphasic pattern — falling asleep on the couch and awakening several hours later to drag myself upstairs to bed. On the other hand, I do suffer from a mild case of Rem Sleep Behavior Disorder, whereby individuals attempt to act out their dreams. Several years ago, in dreaming that I was playing football, I tackled my nightstand, prompting my wife to joke that we’d better dust off our kids’ bed-rails.
Can you share if you are planning another book and what it will be about?
Yes, but I am still trying to decide if I have the language skills to pursue the topic that most excites me.
Who are some of your favorite authors, of history books or otherwise?
I’ve long enjoyed 19th-century British authors, from Austen to Trollope and Hardy. For sheer entertainment, Martin Cruz Smith and the tribulations of the Russian inspector Arkady Renko. Also, anything by John le Carré, Erik Larson’s “In the Garden of the Beasts,” William Manchester’s epic biography of Winston Churchill, and Rick Atkinson’s trilogy devoted to the liberation of Europe in World War II. As for early American scholars, Bernard Bailyn is by any standard the most eminent historian in the world today, period. In 1972, he rightly rejected my application to Harvard graduate school; but his books, which I read that very summer, confirmed my decision to become an early American historian. I admit to a minor bias, for he has been an unofficial mentor for the past 30 years. I also deeply admire the books of Gordon Wood, David Hackett Fischer, and Maya Jasanoff.
What’s the best piece of advice you have for aspiring authors?
As often as possible, to read, write, and revise; and then continue to revise, repeatedly. Read your writing aloud in order to catch clunky sentences, as I do, to the amusement of our neighbors, when walking our dog Kodi. And take inspiration from Benjamin Franklin that two common sources of immortality (however fleeting) lie either in writing “something worth reading” or in doing “something worth writing.”