CHESTERTOWN, MD— From the Republican presidential primary race to debates over same-sex marriage, questions about the role of religion in public life are once again front and center in American politics. On Tuesday, September 27, author Peter Manseau, newly arrived in Chestertown for a year’s residence as Washington College’s 2011-2012 Patrick Henry Writing Fellow, will delve into the deep and controversial history of religious diversity in America. The event, hosted by the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, will be held at 5 p.m. in Litrenta Lecture Hall.
When Thomas Jefferson declared that it did him no injury if his neighbor believed there were "twenty gods or no god," he was not merely advocating tolerance of difference. He was making the case that difference of opinion in matters of religion was good for the country. Manseau has taken Jefferson’s declaration as the launching point for his fellowship project, a major new narrative history of the United States told through the prism of the diverse religious traditions that have shaped the nation.
In his September 27 talk, Manseau will share stories of the “secret Jews” who sailed with Columbus and the deeply religious Taino Indians who swam out to meet them, the devout Muslims who arrived on America’s shores in chains, the Hindu scriptures that inspired transcendentalists such as Emerson and Thoreau, and the Buddhism that Chinese railroad workers brought to the American West in the 19th century.
Peter Manseau is a historian, novelist, journalist and memoirist whose writings on religion and society span a remarkable range of genres. His books include the widely acclaimed memoir Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2005) and the travelogue Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead (Henry Holt, 2009), which the St. Petersburg Times called an “eloquently crafted tribute to the ways in which life and death connect.” His essays and articles have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Vanity Fair, and many other publications.
Manseau’s novel, Songs for the Butcher's Daughter (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2005), was internationally acclaimed as a “picaresque novel with an epic sweep” and was translated into Dutch, German, Hebrew, Italian, French and Spanish. The story of a fictional Yiddish poet in turn-of-the-century Russia, it won the 2008 National Jewish Book Award and the American Library Association's Sophie Brody Medal for Outstanding Achievement in Jewish Literature.
The Patrick Henry Writing Fellowship, provided by the Starr Center, offers a yearlong residency to authors doing innovative work on America's founding era and its legacy. Manseau will use his time at Washington College to complete his forthcoming book, Twenty Gods or None: The Making of a Nation from the Margins of Faith, which is under contract to be published by Little, Brown and Company in 2013. During the spring semester he will teach a course entitled “American Religious Diversity: Idea, Law, and History,” in the Departments of Political Science and Philosophy and Religion.
Manseau’s September 27 talk, “Twenty Gods or None: The Making of a Nation from the Margins of Faith,” offers an opportunity to hear from one of the most intellectually adventurous young scholars writing today. A book signing will follow; admission is free and open to the public. Manseau’s talk is co-sponsored by the Rose O’Neill Literary House.
* * *Founded in 1782 under the patronage of George Washington, Washington College is a private, independent college of liberal arts and sciences located in colonial Chestertown on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience is dedicated to fostering innovative approaches to the American past and present. Through educational programs, scholarship and public outreach, and a special focus on written history, the Starr Center seeks to bridge the divide between the academic world and the public at large. For more information on the Center and its fellowships, visit http://starrcenter.washcoll.edu.