Howard Means loves to write. Whether his topic is Washington high society (he was a senior writer and senior editor for Washingtonian Magazine where he won three William Allen White Medals for feature writing), the US political scene (Means assisted in the writing of several best-selling memoirs by Michael Deaver, Robert Baer, Louis Freeh, and George Tenet) or national news (he was critic-at-large and an editorial board member for the Orlando Sentinel and an op-ed columnist for King Features Syndicate) Means’s writing has reached readers around the world.
But although Means has a demonstrated gift for chronicling current events and personalities, he offers equal expertise when it comes to writing about history. Books by Howard Means include the first biography of Colin Powell, a selection of the History Book Club; Money & Power: The History of Business, companion piece to the CNBC documentary of the same name and translated into Chinese, Japanese, and many other languages; a novel, CSA, optioned for an ABC mini-series; The Banana Sculptor, the Purple Lady, and the All-Night Swimmer, studies in eccentricity, co-authored with Susan Sheehan; and The Avenger Takes His Place: Andrew Johnson and the 45 Days That Changed the Nation, also a featured selection of the History Book Club.
Means’s latest work provides a long overdue history of one of the most widely remembered, but perhaps least understood, figure in American frontier history, John Chapman.
Better known as Johnny Appleseed, Chapman’s story certainly involves apples but also paints an unadulterated picture of the challenges faced by early settlers pioneering the American frontier. Means transforms Johnny Appleseed, the myth, into John Chapman the man whose eccentric beliefs and lifestyle led him to become one of American history’s most unlikely founding fathers.
Born and raised in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Howard means now lives in Millwood, Virginia, with his wife, Candy. Means’s latest book, Johnny Appleseed: The Man, the Myth and the American Story was published by Simon & Schuster earlier this year.
CDN: In your latest book, Johnny Appleseed – The Man, the Myth, the American Story just released in 2011, you chronicle the life and travels of John Chapman, also known as Johnny Appleseed. Yet, little of Chapman’s life work is formally documented by historic records. Were you aware of the documentation challenges you would encounter prior to writing the book, and if so, why did you select Chapman?
MEANS: I was aware of them, but in a strange way the lack of primary sources made the book more fun to work on. I spent months digging through 150-year-old local histories for any mention of Chapman. It was like tracking a shadow in some ways, but in having to work so hard to penetrate the mystery, I think that I got to know the man better than I would have if his life’s story were an open-and-shut case.
CDN: While your book focuses on Chapman, it is filled with vignettes about life on the American frontier in the early 19th century. Did you learn anything from your research that surprised you about our forefathers?
MEANS: A couple of things jump to mind. One is how the Second Great Awakening swept over the frontier in those first decades of the 19th century with these huge camp-meetings – as many as 20,000 people with two dozen ministers working the crowd into a frenzy. The other (and maybe this is why they needed the camp meetings) was just how rough, even vicious these frontiersmen could be. That makes it all the more amazing that they were so accepting of this crackpot pacifist who came to be known as Johnny Appleseed.
CDN: Although Chapman seems to have travelled throughout the Ohio Valley and New England your research appears to rule out the possibility that he ever visited Clarke County, Virginia. Given Clarke County’s apple heritage, did you ever find yourself wanting to find a forgotten link between Johnny Appleseed and Clarke County?
MEANS: Oh, believe me, I tried to make the connection! And there are some sources that suggest Chapman did spend time on this side of the Potomac, but every credible source I could find suggests that he never got south of Pennsylvania.
CDN: American’s think of Johnny Appleseed as a minstrel who spread apple trees across America’s new frontier, yet in many ways he also was a progressive theological thinker and mendicant. Why is he known so well for apples and so little for his religious activities?
MEANS: Well, the name probably has a lot to do with it. He was also an evangelist for a very tiny denomination: the Church of the New Jerusalem. But in his own time, he was as well known for his frontier preaching and philanthropy as he was for his apple seedlings.
CDN: Johnny Appleseed will be forever memorialized in the minds of older Americans by Disney’s cartoon classic Melody Time. As a student of history, how would you characterize the impact that Disney and other made-for-television programs have had on American’s ability to understand their own histories?
MEANS: Once Disney has put its imprint on someone like Johnny Appleseed or Daniel Boone, it’s incredibly hard to get back to the real man on whom the story has been built. That’s in large part why I took the book on â€” I wanted to rescue John Chapman from the Disney mythology.
CDN: You point out that John Chapman’s apples weren’t valued so much for food as they were as a source of cider that could be fermented into alcohol and that life on the new frontier was often lived through and alcoholic haze. Given Chapman’s strong social intellect, is there any evidence that he had second thoughts about the social impact caused by his orchards?
MEANS: I don’t think so. He wasn’t any sort of prude. Evidence is that he enjoyed a little nip himself. And the hard cider that was made from his apples was probably a lot safer to drink than the available water.
CDN: When/why did you first decide that you wanted to be a writer?
MEANS: I credit it all to the UVa English department of the early and mid-1960s â€” people like Bob Kellogg, Doug Day, Conrad Warlick, Fred Bornhauser, George Garrett, Bill Robinson. I was lucky. They made literature come alive for me, and made me want to be a part of it.
CDN: What advice would you offer to someone in Clarke County who wanted to pursue a writing career or publish a book?
MEANS: That’s a tough one. Book publishing looks to be a shrinking enterprise, but there are so many good writers these days – fiction and non-fiction – that I think you must have hope for the book business generally, although no one seems to know exactly what it will look like in another ten years. The key thing, to me, is to write a book for yourself, for your own pleasure and satisfaction. That way, if it doesn’t find a publisher, you still will have something to proud of and happy with.
CDN: Do you have another book in mind? If so, can you share anything about your next project?
MEANS: Yes, and not yet.
CDN: Your daughter Ihrie’s illustrations in Johnny Appleseed – The Man, the Myth, the American Story give the book a wonderful Americana feel. What was it like working on the book with a family member?
MEANS: Magnificent. If I never publish another book, this one will be satisfaction enough. I also got the chance to dedicate this book to our grandson, Caper, and my son (and Caper’s dad), Nathan, helped me with the proposal.
CDN: Chapman was heavily influenced by Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th century Swedish philosopher who advocated a version of Christianity where works count as much as faith and the trinity existing in Jesus rather than three separate entities. You also speculate that Lord Fairfax, who had a close relationship with George Washington here in Clarke County, may also have been a follower of Swedenborg. Is there any evidence that Lord Fairfax’s personal views towards Swedenborg may have crept in to Washington’s personal theological views?
MEANS: The Swedenborgians like to suggest that George Washington became a Swedenborg “reader” in his last year or two. I couldn’t find any solid evidence to confirm that, but Swedenborg’s writings did have a profound influence on several prominent Virginia planters, so who knows….
CDN: You say early in your book that even during a time when newspapers were uncommon, everyone on the frontier seemed to have heard of John Chapman – later Johnny Appleseed – and that his legend quickly migrated from “mortal man to immortal myth” yet little of Chapman’s life work was documented. What has allowed Chapman to remain in our collective American consciousness and do you think that there is a possibility that he will be forgotten as our culture continues to evolve?
MEANS: I think the Appleseed myth is endlessly adaptable precisely because so few actual facts tether the real man to the physical world. Johnny is whatever we want him to be, whenever we want him to be it. That’s a very good formula for long-term survival!
CDN: Do you identify personally with John Chapman? Why or why not?
MEANS: Not really. I would love to be as self-reliant as he was. I deeply admire the mystic in him and the iconoclast. But I think I like a dinner party too much to fully identify.
CDN: Can you tell the readers a little bit about yourself? How long have you lived in Clarke County? Why did you settle here? Where did you go to school? What appeals to you about studying history? What do you do for fun? Other information that you’d like to share?
MEANS: My wife, Candy, and I moved to Millwood from Bethesda five and a half years ago. We started out looking for a farm and ended up discovering that we really like village life â€” and then lo and behold, this old, beautiful house in Millwood came on the market, and we haven’t had a moment’s regret since. I grew up in Amish country â€” Lancaster, PA â€” and went to UVa through a Master’s Degree, then taught high-school English for nearly a decade before descending into journalism and finally books. Fun isn’t hard to find out here. The back roads are beautiful; the people, great. I’ve been a swimmer pretty much all my life, and still do a lot of that, plus gardening, bad tennis, and worse golf.