Interview with Alan Tayler, 2013 National Book Award Finalist, Nonfiction

Alan Taylor

Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin by Alan Taylor Alan Taylor
The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832

W.W. Norton & Company
Photo credit: Lynn R. Friedman

Interview by Sallie Tisdale

Sallie Tisdale: Why do books about slavery and the Civil War continue to resonate so much today? How deeply is this embedded in the sense of American identity?

Alan Taylor: We continue to grapple with the power of race in both past and present. And our politicians still contend, as recent events show, over competing claims for the power of the states versus the superintending authority of the federal government. The Civil War was a cataclysmic unraveling of the Union and a great threat to republican government. That existential crisis for the United States illuminated the centrality of race and racism in the creation of conflicting notions of how power should be distributed in the nation. To understand who we are and where we are headed as a people requires a clearer sense of our past and, particularly, of the tangled relationship of freedom and slavery, opportunity and race.

ST: You've written about the War of 1812 before—a remarkable period often lost in our obsession with the Revolution and the Civil War. Do you feel you labor in obscurity a bit? How did you come to focus on this particular period of time?

AT: My work focuses broadly on the entire period from the colonies through the revolution into the early republic. I've written two books on the War of 1812 because that conflict helped to complete the American Revolution and to set the stage for the political strife that culminated in the Civil War. For good reasons, the Revolution and the Civil War will command a lot of our public memory, but I try to make the case that we'd understand both better by seeing the War of 1812 as a critical bridge between them. The recent bicentennial of that conflict has lifted some of the obscurity.

ST: You describe slaves as "the internal enemy"—African Americans are still viewed this way by segments of American society. Is this an inevitable result of our history? Have we inherited the belief that the races cannot truly live together in peace?

AT: I hope that racial fear need not be inevitable. Indeed, if the truth will set us all free, knowing the origins of that great dread can only help. Although progress in understanding one another is painful and slow, the present situation is better than the America of a generation ago, to say nothing of the grim era of slavery.

ST: You live in Virginia—can you see the Virginia of 1812 in the Virginia of 2013?

AT: Right now I live part-time in Virginia, but will become a full-time resident next year. There is a haunting and beautiful quality to much of the rural landscape, particularly the old farms and plantations in the Piedmont. The past seems far more powerful in the Virginia countryside than any other state I know. One of the most moving experiences I've had is seeing the ruined old homes surrounded by broad fields and forests in Southampton County: the site of Nat Turner's Rebellion in 1831.

Sallie Tisdale is the author of seven books, including The Best Thing I Ever Tasted (Riverhead, 2000), a finalist for the James Beard Award for Writing, and Talk Dirty to Me (Doubleday, 1994), which will be reissued later this fall. She was a National Book Awards nonfiction judge in 2010.