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Social Impact Authors: How & Why Howard Mansfield Is Helping To Change Our World

An Interview With Edward Sylvan

Photo credit: Annie Card

My new book, Chasing Eden: A Book of Seekers, is about Americans seeking their own Promised Land, seeking freedom, seeking peace, and seeking God. We are in a new era of seeking right now. The past has many lessons to teach us about the long road of reform and change.

As part of my series about “authors who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Howard Mansfield.

Howard Mansfield sifts through the commonplace and the forgotten to discover stories that tell us about ourselves and our place in the world. He writes about history, architecture, and preservation. He is the author of a dozen books, including In the Memory House, The Bones of the Earth, The Same Ax, Twice, Chasing Eden, and Dwelling in Possibility: Searching for the Soul of Shelter which The Boston Globe called “a wholly original meditation that’s part observation of the contemporary built environment, part cultural history, part philosophical account, and at times something like a Whitmanian poetic survey.”

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

Until the 3rd grade, I wanted to be Thomas Alva Edison or an astrophysicist. But one look at a brochure, “Your Career in Astrophysics” showed only men at blackboards doing extensive math problems. No telescopes! Science was just really math! Right there, I became a writer.

When you were younger, was there a book that you read that inspired you to take action or changed your life? Can you share a story about that?

I’ve always thought that John McPhee’s The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed is a perfect book. I read it in the 10th grade. A small group of gas station tinkerers has an impossibly large dream to build an airship large enough to move heavy cargo. They fail, but McPhee captures every nuance of their aspirations, and of dreaming big dreams in general.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

When I was writing Skylark, which is about an early-bird aviator, inventor and con man, I went to the last place he had lived, deep in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, a place called Hanging Dog. A bunch of men was waiting to meet me, and all their heads swiveled when I drove into this very small town — because I was driving a blinged-out Chrysler New Yorker- Imperial-Something, white with chrome–spoked wheels, which the rental agency at the airport had dumped on me because my plane was late. Their eyes just about popped out when they saw the car, and I decided not to offer a word of explanation. Once the ship is sinking, nobody wants to hear excuses from the captain.

Can you describe how you aim to make a significant social impact with your book?

My new book, Chasing Eden: A Book of Seekers, is about Americans seeking their own Promised Land, seeking freedom, seeking peace, and seeking God. We are in a new era of seeking right now. The past has many lessons to teach us about the long road of reform and change.

Can you share with us the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

The sisters of one of the last Shaker villages were facing the end of their way of life — until a singing cowboy came along. The end of all but one of the Shaker villages is not as is usually portrayed: a dour shuffling till the end of their days. It was true to its beginnings, a devotion. And it took a signing cowboy with a touch of Barnum to show them the way to save their village as a museum.

What was the “aha moment” or series of events that made you decide to bring your message to the greater world? Can you share a story about that?

I was touring a Shaker museum when their lost utopia felt palpable to me. The nineteenth century was a time of wild re-invention for Americans. People were trying out new religions, new ideas about work, love and worship. That’s when I understood we have always been a nation of seekers.

Without sharing specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I’m very interested in how we create or obliterate a sense of place. I sift through the commonplace and the forgotten to discover stories to tell us about ourselves and our place in the world. This has led me to write about history, architecture and preservation. Why do we save old things? We save them to save ourselves. Since writing about that in The Same Ax, Twice, I have heard from many preservationists and restorers who are essentially Noahs of old skills and beliefs. They have told me how much that book meant to them.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

We have everywhere an absence of memory. Architects sometimes talk of building with context and continuity in mind, religious leaders call it tradition, social workers say it’s a sense of community, but it is a memory we have banished from our cities and landscape. We have speed and power, but no place. Travel, but no destination. Convenience, but no ease. The challenge of our era, then, is to restore the world and make it a place we are actually happy and at peace in.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

The people we admire are the ones that have a wholeness about them. They are committed in their every action to something they love. That’s true leadership. They don’t necessarily advertise themselves, but people sensing this wholeness seek them out.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

I don’t have a list, but I do remember back when I was in journalism school, a professor told us that if you’re interviewing someone at lunch, or being interviewed, to order a grilled cheese sandwich so your food doesn’t distract from the questions at hand. That actually was good advice — and the only useful thing he told us in four years.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“All history is a history of longing,” said the historian Jackson Lears. In each era this longing gives form and force to our lives.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

Thomas Cole was a pioneering American landscape painter and a man who was famous in his day. He went to New Hampshire’s White Mountains when it was still a rough wilderness in the 1820s. There in Franconia Notch and Crawford Notch Cole was moved by a sense of awe — where today tourists might find it pretty but hurry on through. I would have loved to have stood with him to understand what he saw. I write about Cole in my new book, Chasing Eden. In fact, the title comes from what he said about the beauties of America: “We are still in Eden.”

But if it’s breakfast you asked about, these people were always catching trout with great ease in the rivers, or so they said and cooking them over an open fire. That would be a great breakfast

How can our readers further follow your work online?

My website: www.HowardMansfield.com There are reviews and excerpts of my books and links to articles I’ve written in magazines and newspapers.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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Edward Sylvan, CEO of Sycamore Entertainment Group

Edward Sylvan, CEO of Sycamore Entertainment Group

Specializing in acquiring, producing and distributing films about equality, diversity and other thought provoking subjects