Falling for Simon Winchester

The Luminaries & The Men who United the States
The Luminaries & The Men who United the States (Photo credit: Pesky Library)

Simon Winchester came to town with his latest book, The Men Who United the States, and OK, I would just follow him right on out except for the inconvenient existence of Mrs. Winchester, to whom he seems quite fondly attached. Well, Mrs. Winchester plus my rather strong attachment to my own excellent literary husband.

But it’s hard not to love Simon Winchester.

It’s also hard not to love his books — extraordinary explorations of people, places and events. Having just published one slim 160-page nonfiction book of my own after three long years of work, just trying to get my mind around the scope of his productivity is daunting.

The best thing about having Winchester around, though, is the sheer joy he brings along. He is unabashedly pleased with his country; despite all those identifications as “British writer” or “award-winning English author,” he’s now a citizen of the United States. So the new book, he says in his still decidedly British accent, is here  because “America has been a bit down on itself. I wanted to remind people, from a new citizen’s viewpoint, that this (country) is a great success.”

Winchester undertook “this great sort of plum pudding of a book,” he told a charmed audience at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club, not just because of his enchantment with his new home country (he and his wife now live on a farm in Massachusetts) but also thanks to the curiosity he’s had about the place ever since a trip here in the early 1960’s. “I set out to hitchhike each of the contiguous states with 200 crisp $1 bills in my pocket,” he says, and at the end of his journey from Washington to Maine, “I had $182 left.” It is possible that Winchester’s expectation of humankindness in his fellow humans tends to evoke reciprocity, or it may just be that his infectious curiosity translates into cash. Whichever, his readers are the beneficiaries of it all.

Winchester was curious, for example, about the number of cities and towns named ‘Paradise.’ (There are a dozen or more, depending on your sources and your census parameters.) Among others he found Paradise, Florida, a retirement community that might be named in optimistic expectation, and another particular favorite, Paradise, PA, “right next to Intercourse.” Each, Winchester reported, had been spoiled somewhat “by the depredations of history… except for Paradise, Kansas. In that prairie paradise Winchester was told he should stay with the patriarchs, “I am not kidding you: John and Mary Angel.” Mary, it turns out, had a cherry tree in the back yard, went out and picked some cherries and baked a pie. Which resulted in their guest’s “eating cherries in Paradise with the Angels,” and it shouldn’t get much better than that.

With Winchester, though, there’s always a better story — or at least another story — ahead. Elaborating on his citizenship experience, he told of stumbling on the  first question, “What’s the national anthem?” by blurting out “God Bless America.” Only to be forgiven, he says, with the response, “We so wish it were.” As opposed to “the unsingable — unless you’re Beyonce” Star Spangled Banner. The stories kept pouring forth (…”my job,” said Commonwealth Club host and question-poser John Zipperer, when Winchester asked if he were going on too long, “is just to keep you talking”) with endless curious and remarkable factoids and data — but without notes.

A few plums plucked from his plum-pudding book: Thomas Jefferson, with a 1785 ordinance, made lawful the radical notion — since land in the Mother Country had belonged only to royalty and recipients of their largesse — that Americans should be able to own land. An obelisk at the edge of “the broken-down town of East Liverpool, Ohio (a show of hands indicated no one in the audience had heard of East Liverpool, once known as the Crockery Capital of the U.S)., serves as the starting point for the N/S and E/W lines organizing our land, the point having been set by the first and only Geographer of the U.S., Thomas Hutchins. Who knew? You might also not have known about another early American, Clarence King, whom Winchester describes as “a small, bearded, WASP, the first director of the U.S. Geological Survey, quite sexually energetic; he simply loved women — but not white women.” King spent his last 20-odd years — odd in more ways than one — married to a former slave named Ada who believed him when he said he was a light-skinned African American Pullman porter named James Todd. With her he raised five children (“two of them inexplicably white”) on one side of the Brooklyn Bridge while keeping his day job as a WASP geologist on the other side.

The audience appeared ready to let Winchester go on for a few more hours, and he certainly seemed up to that task, but Commonwealth Club one-hour-limit protocols prevailed and Zipperer finally banged the gavel. But not before Winchester expressed pleasure at being in San Francisco, because his next project, already getting underway, “is a big, fat book on the Pacific Ocean.”

If Simon Winchester comes to your town, grab a ticket; meanwhile you might want to grab a copy of The Men Who United the States at your favorite bookstore.