Stonington writer puts his hands on history

"Touching America's History" author Meredith Mason Brown holds a cavalry sword that belonged to Mexican War Army Col. Richard B. Screven and is part of his collection of historical artifacts.
"Touching America's History" author Meredith Mason Brown holds a cavalry sword that belonged to Mexican War Army Col. Richard B. Screven and is part of his collection of historical artifacts. Sean D. Elliot /The Day Buy Photo

Stonington - It's sort of like show and tell for adults.

Stonington author Meredith Mason Brown's newly published book "Touching America's History: From the Pequot War through WWII" introduces important events in American history through 20 artifacts that he and his family have collected over the years.

Among them are a piece of toilet bowl that Brown's uncle collected from Hitler's mountain retreat after it was bombed by the Allies in 1945, a Kentucky rifle used by his ancestor to help rescue Daniel Boone's daughter from the Indians in 1776 and shavings from the scaffolding used to hang famed abolitionist John Brown in 1859.

There's also a 1787 letter written by George Washington explaining why he would not be attending the Constitutional Convention, a decision he later changed, and the western novel that Dwight Eisenhower was reading as he waited for the weather to improve to launch the D-Day invasion of Normandy. One of Eisenhower's aides later gave the book to Brown's father, a drama critic and lecturer, who as a World War II Navy officer worked as a public relations officer reporting the news aboard the USS Augusta, a heavy cruiser.

Brown uses these artifacts, most of which are connected to his own ancestors, and others such as a Pequot ax and adz head he bought from a local antiques dealer, to discuss major events and themes in the country's development, such as Capt. John Mason's 1637 attack on the Pequot fort in Mystic.

"I hope people get a sense of how America has unfolded without it being a boring treatise," he said about the book. "I wanted it to be something that's accessible and fun to read."

The book has won early praise, such as this from Joseph J. Ellis, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for U.S. history for "Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation:"

"It seems to me that Brown has discovered a whole new way of doing history. We might call it 'the tactile approach.' Whatever it's called, Brown makes it into a novel form of story-telling," Ellis writes on the jacket of the book.

Brown, 72, was born in New York City and lived there for most of his life. He began coming to Stonington in the summers beginning in 1947.

A graduate of Harvard University, where he majored in history, he worked as a New York mergers and acquisitions attorney before he retired in 2004 and moved full-time to Stonington with his wife.

His 2008 book "Frontiersman: Daniel Boone and the Making of America" won the Spur Award for best biography on a western subject published that year.

Brown said he got his love of history from his grandfather and father, who collected many artifacts. One of them came in a little box that Brown's father gave him when he was 12.

Inside are what are said to be the shavings of the scaffolding used to hang the abolitionist John Brown, who had been sentenced to death for his attack on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry. Brown's father was giving a lecture in Charles Town, W.Va., in the 1950s when a woman asked him if he was related to the abolitionist, who had been tried and hanged there.

Brown's father said no, but the woman wanted him to have the box, which she said had been handed down through her family from the son of one of the carpenters who made the scaffold.

Others who knew of Brown's interest in historical artifacts and photographs also began giving him items.

But Brown did not get the idea for the book until about 10 years ago, while doing research about his great-uncle Preston Brown, who as a young Army lieutenant in the Philippine-American War was court-martialed for shooting and killing an unarmed Filipino captive in 1900.

President Theodore Roosevelt later pardoned Preston Brown, and he went on to reach the rank of major general.

Brown has a 4-inch thick file of the proceedings as well as photos of his great-uncle. He began to write about the incident, and that became the first of the chapters he would write for the book.

"That's when I realized I had other things that I could use to tell stories," he said.

In the book's prologue, Brown said he has always done better in history "when it becomes concrete and personal to me."

He writes that history is not abstract ideas or theories but the sum of actions of people. "If we can be in touch with those human beings - if they become concrete to us - history comes alive," he said.

He admits that while many of the items may seem "unexceptional in appearance" and could fit in a file drawer, to him, things he can touch brings to life events such as the framing of the Constitution, the election of Washington as the first president, the forced removal of the Cherokees and Seminoles from their homeland and the Allied invasion of Normandy and the collapse of Nazi Germany.

Although Brown has many other artifacts and photographs he could write about, he has no plans for a sequel.

"I'm not sure I have another 10 years to do that," he joked.

j.wojtas@theday.com

If you go: Book signing and lecture

When: 5 p.m. on April 14

Where: La Grua Center, Stonington borough

Sponsored by: Stonington Free Library and Bank Square Books

What else: Free and open to the public

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