Academic journal article Sarmatian Review

An Interview with Alex Storozynski

Academic journal article Sarmatian Review

An Interview with Alex Storozynski

Article excerpt

Aleksandra Ziolkowska-Boehm: Your book The Peasant Prince: Thaddeus Kosciuszko and the Age of Revolution was published by St. Martin's Press in April 2009 and has already garnered many favorable reviews. Newsweek described your book as "an absorbing biography that should restore Kosciuszko to his proper place in history." Publishers Weekly noted that "[Kosciuszko's] were the plans sold to the British by Benedict Arnold." Best of all, your book is selling splendidly on Amazon.com. But Kosciuszko is not a household word in America. The speakers of English have difficulties spelling his name: George Washington himself wrote it in eleven different ways. American historians like to rub in the fact that Kosciuszko left America and had not died here like Pulaski. What is your opinion?

Alex storozynski: Part of the reason that Kosciuszko has not been better known is that he was a man of great modesty who did not look for the limelight. He did not have a big ego like most military officers around George Washington, and he cared more about the common man than most leaders. Pulaski was more brash, he died in battle, and that is part of the reason why he is better remembered. And in addition to problems with spelling his name, most Americans have difficulties pronouncing it.

The Polish government in Warsaw needs to be more aggressive in standing up for itself in Washington.

AZ-B: Your book is written with verve, passion, and involvement, and it keeps the reader connected and interested. I like its style; it is engaging from beginning to end. It is both clearly written and based upon historical documents. You quote American and Polish sources. How did you make your selections?

AS: I tried to write the kind of book about Kosciuszko that I myself would like to read. Many people consider history dry and inaccessible: I tried to counter that. I was very pleased when the Wall street Journal called The Peasant Prince "accessible," and also opined that it "painstakingly provides context and ample documentation." This is what I was trying to do--give context to Kosciuszko's life and make him accessible. History becomes more interesting when we learn about the emotions and motivations of real flesh-and-blood people. Readers have to be able to relate to the historical figure that they are reading about, otherwise they cannot put themselves in their shoes. When I was sifting through thousands of pages of documents, letters, articles, and memoirs, I tried to find the quotes that in my view best reflected Kosciuszko's personality and what he was really about. Clearly, he cared more about what common folk thought of him than what kings, princes, and presidents did.

AZ-B: How much did your journalistic skills help you in producing such a readable book?

AS: Journalists are more skeptically-minded than historians, because we are used to politicians and other public figures lying right to our faces on a daily basis. Many historians care too much about not upsetting the apple cart of conventional wisdom, because they are too concerned about what their fellow historians will think of them. They are afraid that if they are too controversial, they will not get tenure at a prestigious university, which usually is the basis of their existence.

For example, a certain historian speculated in 1909 that Kosciuszko must have come to America with a letter of recommendation written by his mentor, Prince Czartoryski, to General Charles Lee of the Continental Army. Even though there was no evidence that this was true, future generations of historians repeated this claim like sheep. I looked up what Kosciuszko's first job was in America: Chief Engineer of the Pennsylvania Committee on safety. When I researched what this committee was, I discovered that it was created by Benjamin Franklin to protect Philadelphia from the British. so to me, it was obvious that Kosciuszko must have known Franklin, because Franklin was the head of this committee and Kosciuszko was its chief engineer. …

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