Tom Chaffin is the author of Giant’s Causeway: Frederick Douglass’s Irish Odyssey and the Making of an American Visionary (University of Virginia Press, 2014).
JF: What led you to write Giant’s Causeway?
TC: I first visited Ireland in 1985. I was living in Paris then and surviving on a precarious income derived from free-lance magazine writing. And that spring, I hitchhiked around Ireland. I found myself fascinated by the island’s culture and landscapes, and made some good friends there. After my sojourn by thumb, I vowed to find a book project that involved Ireland, or better yet, time spent in Ireland. Three decades later, I began looking into Frederick Douglass’s travels in Ireland. As I came to understand how that journey had transformed him and discovered the primary sources available to tell that story, I knew I’d found my book.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of Giant’s Causeway?
TC: Assembled from copious primary-source documents, Giant’s Causeway is a work of narrative history that chronicles Frederick Douglass ‘s 1845-47 lecture tour of Ireland and Great Britain and reveals how its challenges eased his transition from salaried lecturer—one tied ideologically and financially to his early mentor William Lloyd Garrison— to independent writer and editor, with his own newspaper and vision of the nation’s destiny. It also chronicles Douglass’s subsequent interactions, both benign and fraught, with Ireland and Irish America.
JF: Why do we need to read Giant’s Causeway?
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
TC: Resolving to become a writer came first—at about age five or six. Growing up, I also developed interests in politics and history. I wrote articles for my high school paper and, as an undergraduate, majored in English. During and after my college years, I found my way into a career in journalism. For many years, I worked in that field— as a staff-writer for newspapers, but mainly as a free-lance magazine writer in various cities.
In time, I longed to write books. In the mid-1980s, while still in journalism, I was also, on weekends and vacations, conducting the early research for what later became my first book— Fatal Glory: Narciso López and the First Clandestine U.S. War against Cuba. During that period, the astute woman whom I later married suggested that I enroll in a graduate program in U.S. history, complete the project as a dissertation, and then adapt it as a book. As usual, her advice was sound. Six books later, I’ve never looked back!
JF: What is your next project?
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