Chestertown, MD — He is a renowned author, a prodigious researcher, and a compelling speaker, whose work has been praised by literary critics and academic historians alike. And now Henry Wiencek, whose honors include the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in History, has been named the first Patrick Henry Fellow at Washington College, launching a new program that will provide annual writing fellowships to nationally prominent historians.
The highly competitive new fellowship, which is provided by the College's C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, offers a yearlong residency to authors doing innovative work on America's founding era and its legacy. The fellowship's funding will be permanently endowed as part of a $2.5 million challenge grant package that the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded last year through its nationwide "We the People" initiative, dedicated to strengthening the teaching, study, and understanding of American history and culture. As part of the fellowship award, Wiencek and future recipients will live in a newly restored 1735 house in the heart of Chestertown's colonial historic district.
Wiencek, who will teach a class at the College and be involved in many of its programs, will have an office at the Starr Center, just down the street from the Patrick Henry Fellows' Residence in Chestertown's 18th-century Custom House. He will use the fellowship year to complete a forthcoming book about Thomas Jefferson and his slaves.
"It is an honor indeed to be the first Patrick Henry Fellow," said Wiencek, whose book is under contract to be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. "With its dynamism and imaginative leadership, the C.V. Starr Center is becoming a major force in the study of American history, and I very much look forward to being a contributor to the excellent work going on there."
Wiencek, who lives in Charlottesville, Va., is perhaps best known for An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, which Farrar, Straus & Giroux published in 2003 to superlative reviews and which was named Best Book of that year by the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic. The historian Gordon Wood, writing in the New York Times, called it "superb" and the Washington Post said, "It must be read by all who wish to understand early America."
"I can't think of a better person to be the inaugural recipient of this fellowship than Henry Wiencek," said Adam Goodheart, Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of the Starr Center. "His work exemplifies everything that we had hoped the Henry Fellowship would stand for: innovative research, brilliant writing, and a commitment to grappling with some of the biggest and most difficult subjects in American history."
Wiencek has written and/or edited more than a dozen books. The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White (St. Martin's, 1999)—the epic story of two extended Virginia families who share a surname and a legacy, though one is black and the other white—was a selection of the Book of the Month Club and the History Book Club. "Not since Mary Chesnut's Civil War has nonfiction about the South been as compelling as fiction," wrote a reviewer for Time magazine.
His work-in-progress, on Jefferson and his slaves, promises to shed new light on a subject that has received much attention, but often only through the narrow prism of the Sally Hemings controversy or the intellectual paradox of Jefferson's views on race and liberty. Wiencek has done major new archival research and drawn on archaeological discoveries to document the daily experience of slavery at Monticello. "We've seen Jefferson's relations with slaves entirely through the eyes of Sally Hemings and her family," Wiencek said. "But she was just one of 600 slaves at Monticello. Life for the Hemings family was one thing. Life for those laboring farther down the hill was quite different." Wiencek will give two public lectures on his work during the fellowship year, the first on September 8.
In this inaugural year, the Henry Fellowship drew applications from a number of nationally renowned historians. By supporting writers who are completing books on this period, the Patrick Henry Fellowship is meant to encourage reflection on the links between American history and contemporary culture, and to foster the literary art of historical writing. The fellowship is co-sponsored by the Rose O'Neill Literary House, Washington College's center for literature and the creative arts. The Henry Fellowship complements the George Washington Book Prize, which is also administered by the Starr Center and awarded annually to an author whose work advances public understanding of the Revolution and its legacy.
The restored Patrick Henry Fellows' Residence will be opened with an official ribbon-cutting ceremony on September 18, shortly after Wiencek and his wife, Donna Lucey—also a writer on history, whose books include Archie and Amélie: Love and Madness in the Gilded Age(Macmillan, 2006)—move in. The College bought the house in January 2007 with a $1.05 million gift from the Barksdale-Dabney-Patrick Henry Family Foundation, established by the Nuttle family of Talbot County, direct descendants of the patriot Patrick Henry. The gift has also allowed the house to be extensively restored and furnished, and will endow its longterm maintenance. Known as the Buck-Chambers House, it is one of the oldest buildings in Chestertown, and has historic connections with Washington College stretching back to the 1780s. An early owner, Gen. Benjamin Chambers, who had served as an officer in the Revolutionary army under George Washington, became the College's first treasurer in 1782, and later served as president of its Board of Visitors and Governors.
About the C.V. Starr Center
The C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience explores our nation's history—and particularly the legacy of its Founding era—in innovative ways. Through educational programs, scholarship, and public outreach, and especially by supporting and fostering the art of written history, the Starr Center seeks to bridge the divide between past and present, and between the academic world and the public at large. From its base in the circa-1746 Custom House along Chestertown's colonial waterfront, the Center also serves as a portal onto a world of opportunities for Washington College students. Its guiding principle is that now more than ever, a wider understanding of our shared past is fundamental to the continuing success of America's democratic experiment. For more information on the Center and on the Patrick Henry Fellowships, visit http://starrcenter.washcoll.edu.
About the The Rose O'Neill Literary House
The Rose O'Neill Literary House, hub of Washington College's writing community, is the venue for co-curricular activities that bring together students and faculty with visiting writers, scholars, editors and other literary artists. The creative writing culture here is grounded in the College's longstanding commitment to foster good writing across all disciplines, and to connect students and faculty to the wider culture of literature and the creative arts.
July 9, 2008