Nathaniel Philbrick is the celebrated author of several nonfiction books about the American experience, notably military and maritime history. A number of his books have been New York Times best sellers, including In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (2000), Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War (2006) and The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull and the Battle of the Little Bighorn (2010). His most recent book, In the Hurricane’s Eye: The Genius of George Washington and the Victory at Yorktown (2018), completes his American Revolution trilogy. It was preceded by Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution (2013) and Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold and the Fate of the American Revolution (2016). Philbrick recently spoke with Military History about his past and future projects.
What sparked your interest in military and maritime history?
As a kid I consumed books about World War II. As for maritime history, I grew up sailing, and I worked at a sailing magazine. I was an English major in college, and Moby Dick had become my personal bible. Moving to Nantucket, Mass., turned me on to the history of the island and its whaling history. That led to In the Heart of the Sea. Mayflower came out of my reading for my first work of history, Away Off Shore, a history of Nantucket. I wanted to know more about New England, to put the island in context, so I read Of Plimoth Plantation [by William Bradford]. I thought, This is so much more interesting than anything I was taught about the Pilgrims in school. So I researched them through King Philip’s War; that’s where I got my chance to begin writing about war. For me the sea was the wilderness that defined America’s early history, while the West became the wilderness that defined the latter part of the 19th century. Having written about Mayflower, I wanted to follow it to the end. I went from King Philip’s War to the iconic end of the Indian wars at the Little Bighorn, which I wrote about in The Last Stand.
Is there a common theme running through your books?
All my books are, one way or another, about communities under tremendous stress—whether they are Pilgrims or the crew of a whale ship that has just been rammed by a whale. I also wanted to look at Boston, a community that was essentially an island connected by a thin neck of land to Roxbury. I wanted to see what happened to that population under the stresses of a revolution, so that led me to write Bunker Hill. It was the arrival of Washington at the Siege of Boston that led me to Valiant Ambition and, ultimately, In the Hurricane’s Eye.
How do you approach your research?
Typically, it’s a three-year process. I spend the first year casting the net, reading as widely as I can, creating a bibliography, taking notes and developing a chapter-by-chapter outline. Then I begin writing. Each chapter is its own renewed route of research as I narrow in on what I need to know. The research is ongoing. I’d say 75 percent of my time is spent gathering the material. Once I’m in it, it’s a seven-day-a-week job, starting at 9 a.m. with breaks for lunch and walking the dog. I’m at it right till 6 or 7 p.m. It’s a fairly obsessive time.
Do you have any techniques that help you with your writing?
For the first year I keep a research journal, in which I record surprises while the material is still new to me. When I get to the point that I start writing, I reread that journal. Once you get to know the material, you kind of deaden yourself to the wonder and surprise. For me it’s important to go back and see what got me excited and was surprising to me in the beginning, so I can retain that. It’s easy to take for granted some of the things that are the potentially the most unique about a narrative if you’ve just spent so long in the weeds that you’ve lost track of really what is surprising to people.
‘In the summer of 1973 I sailed in the Sunfish North Americans, which were at Fort Monroe, Va., just 20 miles from Yorktown. So I was sailing right where Admiral [François-Joseph-Paul] de Grasse’s fleet was anchored and navigating the Chesapeake’
Do you ever find things that make you refocus a chapter?
Yes. Often, some of the best stuff happens late. The act of writing is the act of thinking. I often discover I don’t know what I think about something until I’m actually writing the narrative. Once I have a draft, I begin to understand where I’m going and the meaning of the narrative in a way I didn’t know going into it. It’s an ongoing kinetic and organic process.
What is the hardest part about writing a historical narrative?
The research. This latest book was a very challenging research project. I did a lot of work with the French archives. I supposedly knew how to speak French many years ago, but not anymore. I found a wonderful translator [Carol Harris], but she was not familiar with 18th-century French naval terminology. She was able to find a British 18th-century dictionary that provided excellent translations in French, so she was able to figure it out. She was great, and without her it would have been very difficult. Most American accounts use British sources, because there’s just been a lot less work done with French sources.
How has sailing informed your writing?
I was a competitive Sunfish sailor in my teens and early 20s. At 16 I raced in the Sunfish Worlds as the youngest participant in Martinique, right in the very same waters the French fleet sailed into after leaving Brest, France. Then in the summer of 1973 I sailed in the Sunfish North Americans, which were at Fort Monroe, Va., just 20 miles from Yorktown. So I was sailing right where Adm. [François-Joseph-Paul] de Grasse’s fleet was anchored and navigating the Chesapeake. I don’t know quite how it affected the writing of the new book, but I had sailed in those waters. Going to the places is a very important process of all my books, and I did a lot of scoping out of Yorktown and the Chesapeake. It’s funny how for me this book is a culmination of a youth spent sailing in these waters and then returning to them through the archives.
What future topics do you have in mind?
After three books about the American Revolution, with The Last Stand and Mayflower before them, I now want to write a book without battles or bloodshed. I am having a hard time letting go of George Washington, though. My next project is going to be a change of pace. I am going to follow Washington’s travels after the American Revolution. Nine months after returning to Mount Vernon, he headed west to investigate his properties south of Pittsburgh. He was also interested in the possibility of the Hudson River becoming a kind of Erie Canal, connecting the West with the East. He headed up the Potomac to western Pennsylvania. Once he became president, Washington realized he was leading 13 little nations that really didn’t see themselves as part of a coherent whole. So he went on a three-leg journey, visiting all the states. The road trip took him south to Savannah, Ga., and as far north as Portsmouth, N.H.
So, my wife, Melissa, our dog, Dora, and I and will be taking a trip we are already calling “Travels With George.” I will be talking about Washington’s actual travels, but it also will be about what America is like now and what we find on the road as we are following in his footsteps. So for the next year we will be driving around the country with a dog. MH