Simon Winchester digs into the past to make history
Simon Winchester journeys through space and time with equal aplomb. He had already earned his stripes as a travel writer when he decided to plunge into history to tell the story of the Oxford English Dictionary and two of its principal creators. No one was more astounded than he was when in 1998, that story, The Professor and the Madman, became a bestseller.
Now comes The Map That Changed the World, Winchester's account of trailblazing English geologist William Smith. Born in 1769 and largely self-educated, Smith worked as a surveyor, a profession that took him into coal mines and canal excavations where he noticed patterns in the exposed layers of rocks and the fossils trapped within them. From his observations, he created in 1815 a huge, multicolored map of England that detailed with great accuracy the world that lay beneath the nation's surface.
Apart from its value to commerce, the map was an implicit assault on the Christian church's most cherished creation myths. Smith seemed on the verge of scientific celebrity and the wealth that went with it. Four years later, however, he was in debtors' prison, and lesser men were claiming his achievements as their own. As with The Professor and the Madman, Winchester presents The Map That Changed the World as a drama of discovery, despair and redemption, one that plays out across the lifetime of its protagonist.
Speaking from his home in Dutchess County, New York (he has another in Scotland), Winchester says he first heard of Smith while an undergraduate at Oxford. "I think I became interested in him because my tutor [Harold Reading], who I dedicate the book to, told me -- and I think this is what lodged in my mind for all those 30 years -- that William Smith had been very much a hero of his. After this extraordinary success of The Professor and the Madman, I was wondering if there was another character whose life trajectory was similarly interesting and which also illuminated some wider field. And I thought of William Smith."
Heightening his interest in Smith, no doubt, was the fact that Winchester had studied geology in college "24 hours a day for three years" with the intention of earning his living at it. "Immediately after leaving Oxford," he recounts, "I went down to western Uganda and worked in the mountains on the Congo-Ugandan border, prospecting for copper. I had a fascinating time, but it really wasn't what I was most suited to, I don't think."
In Uganda, Winchester read Coronation Everest, James Morris' 1958 account of being a Times correspondent on a Mount Everest expedition. "I was interested in mountains," he continues, "so I thought, well, instead of working in the mountains and hitting bits of rock and sending them off to be examined, I would try to get a job going to exotic places and writing about them generally. So I wrote to James and said, 'Can I be you?' as it were, and he wrote back and said, 'Absolutely. If you want to leave Uganda, come back and get a job on a local paper in Britain and keep in touch.' That's what I did."
James Morris underwent a sex change in 1972 and emerged as Jan Morris. "We've remained closely in touch and have written a book together," says Winchester. "We're the best of friends. But it's rather odd when your mentor goes from one gender to another."
Winchester moved to America in 1972 to work as a correspondent for the Guardian, a post he held until 1976. "During that time I began getting freelance work from magazines like Harper's, the Atlantic Monthly and the Smithsonian," he says. "Nowadays, I find that I have a far more sympathetic audience among editors in America than I do in Britain. There are so many more magazines that will print long and relatively serious pieces in America than there are in Britain. I've just done a big piece in the Atlantic about Roget's Thesaurus. There's no magazine in Britain that would spend 15,000 words on Roget's Thesaurus. This is a country which really, in my view, respects writers. It's one of the reasons I prefer to spend my time here."
As a travel writer, Winchester favored grand projects. His books took him through Korea, along the length of the Yangtze River and throughout the colonial remnants of the British Empire. What they did not do, he freely admits, was make money. "I never ever had had a book that really earned out its advance, I don't think. And then suddenly I changed from writing about travel to writing about history, never having any experience of doing such a thing, and extraordinarily [The Professor and the Madman] took off."
Winchester has developed a pattern for his histories: "I try to cover the story in a chronological, linear sort of way, but I very deliberately go off in an exuberant way along all the tangents that seem valuable and interesting. . . . If I'm interested in the railway that was built where the canals used to be, then I'll write about that. If I'm interested in fossil collections, then I would write about the nature of fossil-collecting generally."
There have been three book projects, Winchester says, that he decided to abandon well into the research stage: one on Manchuria ("because the Chinese have destroyed so much relating to the history of the Manchu people"), the second on Shanghai (after another "very good book" on the subject was published) and the third on Arctic explorer and National Geographic founder Adolphus Washington Greely (after Winchester found that a fellow writer was already 15 years into writing his own life of Greely).
"The next book I'm doing," Winchester reveals, "is a big study of the 27th of August, 1883, which is the day that the volcano at Krakatoa exploded. I want to take a look at that extraordinary day [and] the immediate aftermath. It had a great global effect." As a part of the book, Winchester says he will also weave in how the telegraph quickly carried news of the eruption around the world.
"My big dream is a book I've been planning to do for years," he says. "It's to write a sort of a hymn to the joys of tramp steamers. I want to buy an 800-ton tramp steamer with a crew of six, sail it around the world for two years, picking up and discharging cargo and running it as an actual business. And I want to chronicle all this in a very romantic way. But for some funny reason, publishers don't seem terribly keen. I wonder why that might be?"
Edward Morris reviews and interviews from Nashville.
Author photo by Marion Ettinger.