Chestertown, MD — Award-winning historian Henry Wiencek, newly arrived in Chestertown for a year's residence as Washington College's first-ever Patrick Henry Fellow, will share little-known stories about the daily experience of slavery at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello on Monday, September 8, at 4:30 p.m., in the Casey Academic Center Forum.
Wiencek, whose honors include the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography and theLos Angeles Times Book Prize in History, is the first recipient of the highly competitive new fellowship, which is provided by the College's C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, and co-sponsored by the Rose O'Neill Literary House.
The Patrick Henry Fellowship offers a yearlong residency to authors engaged in innovative work on America's founding era and its legacy. As part of the fellowship award, Wiencek and his wife, writer Donna Lucey, are residing in the heart of Chestertown's colonial historic district, in the newly restored 1735 Buck-Chambers House, now the Patrick Henry Fellows' Residence. He will use the fellowship year in Chestertown to complete his forthcoming book about the master of Monticello and the men, women, and children whose labor was the lifeblood of the estate.
"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."
For the past three years, Wiencek has immersed himself in Jefferson's papers and plantation documents, in the oral histories of slave descendants, in Ablemarle County court records, and in the papers of Jefferson's extended family. Drawing also on recent archaeological discoveries at Monticello, he has documented the everyday realities of life on Jefferson's mountain. The book is under contract with Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
A resident of Charlottesville, Va., Wiencek is perhaps best known for An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, which was published in 2003 to superlative reviews and 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."
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 southern 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.
"I can't think of a better person to be the inaugural recipient of the new Patrick Henry 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." The Henry 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. Wiencek will teach a spring course at Washington College.
Wiencek's September 8 lecture, "A Paradox to Posterity: Jefferson and Slavery at Monticello," offers a unique opportunity to hear from one of the most insightful commentators on the American past—and present—writing today, as well as peek inside the process of researching a major work of history. A book signing and reception will follow; admission is free and open to the public.
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 Fellowship, visit http://starrcenter.washcoll.edu.
August 22, 2008