Two for the Books

Alan Taylor, PhD'86
Lynn R. Friedman
Alan Taylor, PhD'86

When slaves living in Tidewater Virginia spied British warships anchored just offshore during the War of 1812, they didn’t see invasion. They saw freedom.

Eager to recruit expert local guides, British commanders promised to provide protection. So hundreds of slave families risked life and limb to get to the ships and become free.

Historian Alan Taylor, PhD’86, uncovered a surprising number of firsthand accounts of these escapes, most of them written by slave masters or their white neighbors.

But then he found a letter dated May 1820:

Sir, I take this opportunity of writing these lines to inform you how I am situated hear. I have [a] Shop & Set of Tools of my own … when I was with you [you] treated me very ill and for that reason i take the liberty of informing you that I am doing as well as you if not better.

Former slave Bartlet Shanklyn, now a blacksmith in Nova Scotia, had written his former master in Virginia to tell him what he’d been able to accomplish as a free man. “It’s pretty much an in-your-face letter,” Taylor says.

Shanklyn even proudly explains how he outsmarted a would-be captor the night of his escape: “he was very Strong but I showed him that subtilty Was far preferable to strength.”

“I never expected to find that letter,” says Taylor, who last August left a post at UC Davis to become the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Chair in History at the University of Virginia.

Painstaking research, and the serendipity it attracts, animates “The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832,” Taylor’s study of slavery during the War of 1812 period.

In April 2014, the book earned the 59-year-old scholar a second Pulitzer, along with a $10,000 award. Taylor won his first Pulitzer in 1996, for “William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early American Republic.”

Pulitzer No. 2 lands Taylor in select company. Only three other historians have managed to win the prize twice since it debuted in 1917.

Layman readers appreciate that archive digger Taylor is also a gifted storyteller. “I want my work to be of interest to people beyond my fellow specialists in history,” he says, which means writing “good, clear prose.”

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“A tight style is not something that happens in a first draft, or a second or third draft, of anything I do,” he says. “I have to edit.”

Growing up in a small town near Portland, Maine, Taylor gravitated early to history books. “I read very widely,” he says. “European history, and U.S. history, and Colonial history. Then, at Colby College, I did a senior thesis that involved archival research, and I just fell in love with it.”

He came to Brandeis because of its history department’s reputation and strength in social history. “I’ve talked with people who were at larger, more diffuse graduate programs, and they sometimes felt adrift,” he says. His experience was different. “The faculty members I worked with paid good, close attention and gave me lots of feedback.”

In “William Cooper’s Town,” Taylor examines two generations of the Cooper family — novelist James Fenimore Cooper was William’s son — and the New York community William founded to tell larger truths about post-Revolutionary America. The intimate focus of that book — and its outsized success — sometimes gets Taylor pegged as a microhistorian.

“I like to do all sorts of different styles of history,” he says, resisting that pigeonhole. “I’ve done very big-picture books, sweeping syntheses of long periods of time and very large geographies. The book I’ve sold the most copies of is ‘American Colonies,’ and it’s certainly no microhistory.”

Taylor is currently working on “American Revolutions,” a follow-up to “American Colonies,” with a projected 2016 publication date. And he’s settling into his new job at UVa. Holding the Jefferson Chair at Thomas Jefferson’s creation is an enormous honor, he says.

No one has ever won three Pulitzers in the area of history. Asked if he’s gunning for that now, Taylor laughs. “Those odds are pretty long,” he says. “The decision is in the hands of a well-informed committee, and there are lots of wonderful books published every year.”

Taylor says any prizewinning book has to reach beyond great research and great writing. “It’s also got to have a topic that strikes readers as important. One that has some resonance with something going on in our culture today, like the legacy of slavery.”

But ultimately, he says, so many of the variables lie outside an author’s control. “Saying you want to win a major book prize is like saying ‘I would like to win the lottery.’ You publish a book, you buy a lottery ticket.

“All you can do is publish the best book you can.”