MANCHESTER -- Forget "First Wednesdays" for November. Think "First Thursdays" instead.
The speaker and discussion series hosted by the Mark Skinner Library and sponsored by the Vermont Humanities Council is going for a new first. Due to his teaching schedule, Pulitzer award-winning historian David Hackett Fischer will be presenting and leading a discussion about his book, "Champlain's Dream," a biography and description of the life of Samuel de Champlain, on today, instead of the following Wednesday, Nov. 7. The talk will be held at the First Congregational Church, starting at 7 p.m.
Champlain is probably best known in Vermont for his explorations of Canada in the early 17th century that resulted in a large lake that separates what is now New York state and Vermont being named after him. But Champlain did far more than open up Canada and parts of what is now known as New England to trade and settlement by Europeans. He was by turns a soldier, a cartographer, an artist, a diplomat, as well as a trader, businessman and explorer, Fischer said.
"Canada and New France were an important part of what he did but he had larger purposes in mind," Fischer said in a telephone interview last week. "That flowed from his time and place."
Champlain's goal, and a part of his "dream," was to create a new kind of empire from the style more commonly associated with military conquest. It would be centered around humanist values -- tolerant of differences and diversity, open to freedom of worship, and one that sought to get along with the indigenous American population rather than subjugate them. At the same time he hoped to see the emergence of a more tolerant culture in his native France, which was wracked by a series of civil wars during the second half of the 16th century as the country tore itself apart over issues of religion and dynastic succession.
Champlain found himself in favor with Henry IV, the French king who eventually brought peace to his troubled country. It's possible
Champlain was Henry's illegitimate son, although that has never been proven. It would go a long way towards explaining why, though,
Champlain, ostensibly a commoner by birth, was able to rise rapidly through the ranks and, following a large inheritance from an uncle, was able to lead a series of explorations beginning in 1603 to the
Maritimes provinces of Canada and northern Maine. He founded what became the city of Quebec in 1608. The following year he reached the lake that now bears his name and entered Vermont history, before it was Vermont.
Fischer's view of Champlain as a tolerant humanist who found inspiration in the values of the Renaissance is somewhat at odds with earlier descriptions of him as one more European mercenary, according to one account published in the Toronto Globe and Mail in 2009, when Fischer gave a talk on his book, which had been published the year before, in 2008.
Fischer documents the lengths to which Champlain went to accommodate the Indians who inhabited New France, seeking to understand them and avoid conflict with them. Eventually he wound up dealing with more than 50 separate Indian nations or tribes, most of them peacefully.
The one major exception was the Mohawks, he said.
"He got along with the Indians -- that was the first thing he did,"
Fischer said. "He tried to make France a more tolerant place and that proved more difficult."
Champlain the humanist will be one main focus for Fischer's talk on Nov. 1, and he will argue it made a lasting imprint on Canadian values that persist to this day. Where in the English colonies that later became the United States, the values of liberty and freedom were pre-eminent, in Canada, it has been tolerance that has been stamped on the Canadian character, Fischer stated in another discussion posted on YouTube.
Fischer brings substantial credentials with him as a historian. A professor at Brandeis University, he earned a Pulitzer Prize for his earlier book, "Washington's Crossing," which covers Washington's leadership of the Continental Army during the winter of 1776-7, when a stirring counterattack across the Delaware River repulsed the British and Hessian troops encamped around Trenton N.J., and won a badly needed boost to colonial morale after a string of military reverses earlier that year. Other well-known books he has written include "Revere's Ride" and "Albion's Seed."
His style and approach as a historian blends the traditional narrative of great historical figures and big events with underlying social currents. According to Fischer, to properly write history, the historian starts with the spirit of open inquiry -- who this person was, what he did and how did that make a difference. That meant going to all the places that influenced Champlain, from his hometown of
Brouage on the Atlantic coast of western France, to the first place he made landfall in Canada on the Saguenay River, an area remarkably unchanged from when Champlain first saw it more than 400 years ago, Fischer said.
"I have three rules for writing history -- go there, do it, and write it," Fischer said. "So we (meaning he and his wife, a botanist and artist) followed Champlain as best we could, everywhere we knew he had gone in North America and the Caribbean."
This will not be Fischer's first visit to Manchester. When "Washington's Crossing" was published in 2005, he led a discussion about it at the Northshire Bookstore, where Bill Lewis, one of the store's booksellers and experts on historical works introduced him.
Fisher is clearly among the top tier of historians and writers today, Lewis said.
"The research that backs his work is the kind of thing that sets a benchmark for fellow academics and is always on copious display in appendages and footnotes that follow the text," he said. "He writes with a clarity that is accessible to any history reader. His insights are always first-rate."
David Hackett Fischer will be appearing at the First Congregational Church on tonight at 7 p.m.
In December, the First Wed nesdays series will return on a Wednesday -- Dec. 5 -- for a talk led by Williams College professor Edward Burger on "Monkeys, Mathematics and Mischief: What are the lifelong lessons of Education?"
There is no admission charge for the First Wednesdays lectures. For more information, call the Mark Skinner Library at 802-362-2607,or visit vermonthumanities.org online.