In 2010, I decided to spend the summer in NYC. I was two years into blogging and was making enough where I could afford a few months here. Still new to the industry, NYC was where all the legends of writing lived and I wanted to start making connections with my peers.
It was that summer I met Jason Cochran, a guidebook writer from Frommers, editor, and the man I would consider my mentor.
Though we never had any formal mentor/mentee relationship, Jason’s writing philosophy, advice, and feedback, especially on my first book, How to Travel the World on $50 a Day, has been instrumental in shaping me as a writer. Much of his philosophy has become mine and I don’t think I would have grown to where I am without him.
Today, we’re going to go behind the scenes of the book and talk to Jason on what does lie in America!
Nomadic Matt: Tell everyone about yourself.
Jason Cochran: I’ve been a travel writer for longer than I’ve felt like an adult. In the mid-‘90s, I kept a very early form of a travel blog on a two-year backpacking trip around the world. That blog became a career. I’ve written for more publications than I can count, including for a prime-time game show.
These days I’m the Editor-in-Chief of Frommers.com, where I also write two of its annual guidebooks, and I co-host a weekly radio show with Pauline Frommer on WABC. For me, history is always my way into a new place. In many ways, time is a form of travel, and understanding the past flexes a lot of the same intellectual muscles as understanding cultural differences.
So I have come to call myself a travel writer and a pop historian. That last term is something I just made up. Dan Rather made fun of me once for it. “Whatever that is,” he said. But it seems to fit. I like uncovering everyday history in ways that are funny, revealing, and casual, the way Bill Bryson and Sarah Vowell do.
What made you want to write this book?
Before I began researching, I just thought it would be funny. You know, sarcastic and ironic, about Americans going to graveyards and places of suffering just to buy lots of tacky souvenirs, eat ice cream, and wear dumb t-shirts. And, that’s still in there, for sure. We’re Americans and we like those things. Key chains will happen.
But that changed fast. For one, that would have become a very tired joke. It wouldn’t carry for three hundred pages. Things clicked for me early on, on the first of several cross-country research drives I took. I went to a place that I wasn’t taught about at school, and it clicked. I was at Andersonville in rural Georgia, where 13,000 out of 45,000 Civil War prisoners died in just 14 months. It was flat-out a concentration camp.
Yes, it turns out that concentration camps are as American as apple pie. The man who ran it was the only Confederate officer who was executed after the war. Southerners feared the victors would hang their leaders by the dozen, but that vengeance never materialized. Not for Jefferson Davis, not for Robert E. Lee—the guy who ran this camp poorly got the only public hanging. And he wasn’t even a born American. He was Swiss!
But that’s how important this place was at the time. Yet most of us have never even heard of it, except for a really bad low-budget movie on TNT in the ‘90s in which all the characters bellowed inspirational monologues as if they thought they were remaking Hoosiers.
So just getting my head around the full insanity of Andersonville’s existence was a big light bulb—our history is constantly undergoing whitewashing. Americans are always willfully trying to forget how violent and awful we can be to each other.
And Andersonville wasn’t even the only concentration camp in that war. There were a bunch in both the North and the South, and most of them had survival rates that were just as dismal. So that was another light bulb: There’s a story in why our society decided to preserve Andersonville but forget about a place like Chicago’s Camp Douglas, which was really just as nasty, except now it’s a high-rise housing project and there’s a Taco Bell and a frozen custard place where its gate once stood.
And did you know that the remains of 12,000 people from another Revolutionary War concentration camp are in a forgotten grave smack in the middle of Brooklyn? We think our major historic sites are sacred and that they are the pillars of our proud American story, but actually, how accurate can our sites be if they’re not even fairly chosen?
What was one of the most surprising things you learned from your research?
In almost no instance was a plaque, statue, or sign placed right after the historic event in question. Most of the monuments were actually installed many decades after the event. In the case of the Civil War, most of the memorials were…
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