The Harman Writer-in-Residence program held a “Reading and Conversation” on Oct. 17 with Russell Shorto — current author-in-residence — in anticipation of his upcoming book Revolution Song. The nonfiction book is a historical narrative that subtly weaves through six different lives during the American Revolution.
A project of this scope is the product of eight years of continuous work and research. All of the characters featured in the book passed vigorous auditions and replacements, as the author kept swapping them in and out until the perfect connections between them could be found. While its expected release is Nov. 7, Revolution Song has already received praise from sites such as Publisher’s Weekly and Goodreads.
Shorto, who opted out of the standard “book talk” format for this event, chose to explain why the nation’s founding documents remain relevant to a room of Baruch College students and faculty.
“We talk about things like freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of religion and I was interested in it almost academically. What did it feel like to live in a time when these things were up for grabs? You were willing to fight and possibly die for them. And then suddenly they matter again,” said Shorto.
Already striking a common chord with the audience, Shorto recapped the controversies that have recently saturated headlines, notably mentioning President Donald Trump’s response to Charlottesville, as well as the latest NFL protests for racial inequality. The author offered a more in-depth analysis as he referred to The New York Times op-ed “White Nationalism is Destroying the West.”
“The point is actually bigger and I guess, in a way, sadder. It is the fear that is being stoked in the West, using things like immigration, and in particular radical Islam. In a world in which you have so much change happening so quickly, people ... are understandably confused and fearful. They’re retrenching to their tribal sense of wanting to return to what was,” stated Shorto.
After an extensive dialogue, Shorto began to speak of a character named Venture Smith, whom he writes about in Revolution Song. Smith was a slave who lived in Connecticut at the time of the American Revolution and was able to not only buy his own freedom, but that of his family as well. Shorto emphasized that Smith, in actuality, represents a way to process what is going on now in the United States through the period of its founding.
The author also made sure to mention that Smith’s slave narratives were free from the filter of mediators during that time, allowing his story to remain pure.
The enthusiasm in Shorto’s voice was noticeable as he told the room of Smith’s struggle to establish an identity as a free man in the North. The author craftily allowed the crowd to form their own opinions of Smith as he introduced him on a personal level. A powerful moment came at the mentioning of Smith’s words later in life: “My freedom is a privilege which nothing else can equal.”
As he closed, Shorto provided the link between the foundation of the country and a packed Baruch event space.
“Our history begins with a promise of freedom, we all know it was only partially fulfilled. Every step of the way, people had to continue to fight for American freedom. You might say that the whole of American history has been a continuation of that same fight that marked the beginning of the American nation. You might say the American Revolution never ended. You might say that we’re still fighting it,” Shorto stated.
With his fan base now a little bigger, the acclaimed author will serve as a judge for the Harman Fall 2017 Nonfiction Writing Contest and continue to teach at Baruch for the remainder of this semester.