Nathaniel Philbrick profile
Phone interview 1/10/04
- by Carol Standish
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Sea of Glory
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania seems an unlikely place to grow up for an author/historian who has made his literary mark chronicling great sea voyages. Pittsburgh is, nevertheless, the home town of Nathaniel Philbrick, author of the National Book Award winning Heart of the Sea and more recently, Sea of Glory.
There is a wrinkle, however. Both parents were teachers (his father a professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh). Two weeks of each summer vacation was spent on Cape Cod with maternal grandparents—where Nat and his brother embraced the watery sport of Sunfish sailing with a vengeance. Not content with two measly weeks, they pursued Sunfish sailing on Lake Champlain where their parents had a camp and eventually found water near Pittsburgh.
By the age of 22, Nat Philbrick had claimed the Sunfish North American (racing) Championship and a degree in English from Brown University. After earning an advanced degree at Duke he embraced a suitably dignified career for such a lettered man—that of free-lance sailing journalist, writing a book about his Sunfish experience and eventually joining the writing staff of a Boston based sailing magazine.
Philbrick was married with two children living in suburban Boston when his wife Melissa, an attorney who had grown up on Cape Cod saw an ad for an opening at a law office on Nantucket. The family has been happily ensconced on the island since 1986.
Steeping himself in island history, Philbrick has published two books on the subject and today, in addition to writing, is the director of Egan Institute of Maritime Study on the island. He has also developed Nantucket Island Community Sailing and has donated his faithful Sunfish to the program.
An early and ardent love affair with sailing and the sea has clearly influenced Philbrick’s writing career. Living on Nantucket, and writing about its history rather naturally led to the well-documented and detailed examination of the whaling saga that is Heart of the Sea.
But Philbrick’s interest in the hitherto obscure U.S Exploring Expedition goes back to his Pittsburgh connections. William Stanton, an historian of science was a colleague of Phil brick’s father at the University of Pittsburgh. In 1975 he wrote scholarly examination of the many major contributions of the four year long expedition to the developing science of the day. Stanton’s book was one of the first Philbrick read on the subject. The venerable professor, now retired in Nova Scotia, supported Philbrick’s own investigation by giving him his own microfilmed research data.
Professor Stanton’s help was a boon but Philbrick was also lucky to have his father and a talented research assistant on his team. The first step in the three year process of writing Sea of Glory was “putting out the net,” says the author. Philbrick spent an entire year reading and developing a bibliography. “Without my research assistant and my father, the whole project would have taken at least a fourth year,” he says. Whenever Philbrick identified a potentially relevant source, his assistant, based in Washington, D.C. would track it down, usually in the National Archives, and send a copy to Nantucket.
One of the pivotal sources was the journal of one William Reynolds, an officer on the expedition. Philbrick’s father, now retired on Cape Cod “just across the sound” volunteered to transcribe the 250,000 word journal from the microfilm. That task and transcription of some of the letters of the commander of the expedition, John Wilkes took the elder Philbrick an entire year. Father and son agree, “Wilkes had the most indecipherable handwriting imaginable.”
In the process of “assembling a bibliography” the structure of the book surfaces, says Philbrick and the next step is to break up the book in sections and “do a chapter” –that is re-read the relevant notes and write the chapter. “When I’m writing I read and write every day— seven days a week. Sea of Glory took a year and a half of “solid writing.”
Six months more of meticulous revising and re-writing was particularly tough for Philbrick who admits to being “an inveterate re-writer, driving my editor crazy.” In spite of authorial tinkering (or maybe because of it) the mission was accomplished in a thorough, articulate and engaging way. The book was released in November of 2003.
As soon as he’s done with book tours and appearances on Brian Lamb’s Booknotes and at the Smithsonian, Philbrick plans to dig right into his next project, a book whose working title is Pilgrims and Indians. Appropriately, it begins with the voyage of the Mayflower.
Sea of Glory review