Thursday night: Brush up on your history with author Nathaniel Philbrick


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Author Nathaniel Philbrick, who grew up in Squirrel Hill, is a bit of a disappointment to his mother. She is a die-hard Steelers fan.

Mr. Philbrick follows the Patriots.

Not only in football, but as a writer. His latest book, "Bunker Hill," details the historic battle outside Boston that in many ways set the course of the American Revolution.

Tonight, Mr. Philbrick, who attended Linden Elementary and Allderdice High School, returns to Pittsburgh as part of the Writers LIVE series at the Carnegie Lecture Hall in Oakland.

"I get back on book tours, and it's fascinating to see how the city has flourished," said Mr. Philbrick, whose father taught in the University of Pittsburgh English department. "It's so different from how it was when I was growing up in the '60s and '70s. But it will always have a dear place in my heart."

A graduate of Brown University in Providence, R.I., Mr. Philbrick earned his master's degree in American literature at Duke.

"I was always writing," he said of his youth. "I was fiddling with poetry and things. But I wasn't sure what I wanted to be."

The rest is history. American history. He is the author of more than a half-dozen books on topics including New England whaling, the Mayflower and Gen. George Armstrong Custer.

"I consider myself a writer who happens to write about history, rather than a historian," Mr. Philbrick said. "I was an English major in college. What I've learned about history is in the field, so to speak. Going into the archives and working with it directly.

"With popular history, I'm trying to find the stories and the characters that reveal something important about our country's past. What I enjoy about writing about American history is how rich the record is. These extraordinary letters that were written by the participants and the diaries that were left. They begin to come to life in a way. They're part of a very different time and it is distant from us, but there's a sort of connection I try to show. How different it was in the past, and yet perhaps there are lessons that can help us today."

His books add details and perspective to characters and events that you might have thought you already knew pretty well.

"Some of my books sort of have a provocative take," Mr. Philbrick said. "Sometimes you find interesting things about characters that show they weren't necessarily the way people usually see them. It can make for lively conversations, but that's great. Spark a little controversy, get people to think about it. That's what it's all about.

"There is a tendency to get nostalgic about the past and to see our Founding Fathers as these icons of all that is right. There's an awful lot to that, but they're also human beings with foibles. Each one is a complex person rather than a statue.

"Many of us came away from our youth thinking that the story of the Revolution was that the Americans were patriots fighting the oppressive British. It was kind of good versus evil, liberty versus tyranny. When you get into it, you find that it was much more complicated. Americans didn't quite know what to think as the pressures that led to the Revolution approached. Most people were stuck in the middle, just trying to figure it out and wanting it to be the way it had always been.

"There were competing claims and a lot of misunderstandings and yet some people with real vision. Similar to the way it is now, where no one seems to have a game plan. Things just happen and, in many ways, that was kind of the way the Revolution unfolded."

For example, in "Bunker Hill," Mr. Philbrick shares the story of Dr. Joseph Warren, a patriot who stood to be one of the leaders of the new nation until he was killed in the battle. Few classroom history books today make mention of him.

"There is not a single memorial for Joseph Warren in Boston," Mr. Philbrick said. "Now, there's some talk about perhaps there should be a statue near where the site of his house was. The same house where he gave Paul Revere the order to alert the countryside that British soldiers were heading to Concord. I think it's overdue, and if my book can contribute to that kind of action, that would be great."

Mr. Philbrick's parents have retired to Cape Cod, so he has no family in Pittsburgh any more. But his book tours bring him back, and it's always nice to see old friends.

"I spend three years in my basement office, pretty much by myself, with my dog the only other creature down there with me," he said. "And to finally get the book done and have a chance to emerge from the basement and see people who are interested in what I've done is a great opportunity and I really enjoy it.

"It's nice to talk with readers and we inevitably talk about the other books I've written. It's fun to get the feedback. There's always a question-and-answer session. You get a question or a comment and those conversations are really special. In a way, that's my favorite part."

The free event begins at 6 p.m. at the Carnegie Lecture Hall on Schenley Drive.

If you sit near the front, you'll be able to see the whites of his eyes.

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If you have a suggestion for something to do some evening, let us know about it and we'll see if we can get some of our friends to join you. Contact Dan Majors at dmajors@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1456.


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