More than facts: Brendan Wolfe reimagines Virginia history

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Brendan Wolfe looks into the nuance of historical facts through his work as the managing editor of Encyclopedia Virginia. He will contribute a story about war in Virginia to the June issue of Obscure Histories, a quarterly online magazine. Photo: Martyn Kyle Brendan Wolfe looks into the nuance of historical facts through his work as the managing editor of Encyclopedia Virginia. He will contribute a story about war in Virginia to the June issue of Obscure Histories, a quarterly online magazine. Photo: Martyn Kyle

The thing about working for the encyclopedia is that you’re just surrounded by stories all the time. I never get tired of all the interesting stuff that you come into contact with.” As the managing editor of Encyclopedia Virginia, it’s no surprise that Brendan Wolfe feels this way. Where many would envision dull days of copy editing text worthy of a dusty World Book, he sees endless opportunities for exploration. This month, Wolfe will build on this curiosity as a contributor to the latest issue of Obscure Histories—an online magazine—while also re-launching the Encyclopedia Virginia blog.

A project of the Virginia Foundation of the Humanities and the Library of Virginia, EV launched in 2008 and Wolfe has been there since the beginning. Though it’s no surprise that EV focuses broadly on Virginia history, its content is created in subject-specific sections, such as colonial history or the African-American experience during Reconstruction. “Generally, we get scholars to write entries. Part of our mission is to be an authoritative resource that’s vetted by scholars, but accessible to the general reader,” said Wolfe.

Wolfe is something of an encyclopedia as well, at times even interrupting himself to dive headlong into a story about his current focus. “One of the stories that’s most captured my attention is the story of this Indian, Don Luís de Velasco,” he said. As he launches into a retelling of this Virginia Indian’s voyages between the Chesapeake Bay and Spain, Wolfe’s excitement is palpable.

It turns out the man’s real name was Paquiquineo, a fact that was discovered in a Spanish archive from the 16th century. “We have a photocopy of a copy of that page on the Encyclopedia,” said Wolfe. While other details remain unknown, the confirmed facts and accepted interpretations of what happened to Paquiquineo unfold on EV in a gripping tale of subterfuge.

Indeed, this and many other EV entries make for an engaging read. But Wolfe also hopes that the encyclopedia encourages readers to question historical interpretations and embrace the idea that history is constantly evolving as researchers make new discoveries. “All these different things that we bring to it affects the way we read history and the way that history is told. And to me that’s what makes it interesting,” he said. Any historical account can be influenced by a scholar’s personal life, politics and stereotypes of the time when the account is constructed. “I think that what’s important is to emphasize the idea that we don’t really know what happened,” said Wolfe. “History is our best guess.”

Wolfe’s article in the June issue of Obscure Histories will focus on this very theme, presenting a case for rethinking and redefining a commonly taught piece of colonial history in Virginia. As a previous contributor to the online publication, Wolfe was asked to write a piece for the upcoming issue on the theme of military science. “The first Anglo-Powhatan War is what some scholars have used to describe the conflict between the Powhatan Indians in Tidewater, Virginia, and the English settlers in Jamestown. It’s a war that we have a habit of not calling a war,” he said.

The relatively new scholarly opinion to refer to it as a war first came about in the early 1990s but, historically, the definition of what constitutes a war has never been easy to outline. “In schools, curricula tend to want to emphasize the cooperation between the Indians and the English as a way of getting away from hurtful stereotypes of Indians—which is a good thing, to get away from those stereotypes. But what it tends to do is it ends up erasing the actual violence.”

As it happens, it also makes the narrative of colonization relatively incoherent, switching between peace and conflict without much context or explanation. “I think that sometimes we don’t trust fourth graders with the actual truth of things that happened and, as a result, we give them stories that don’t make sense. And then we wonder why no one understands or cares about history. It’s annoying,” he concluded.

To make history more accessible and interesting, the encyclopedia also features a blog, which Wolfe manages. “For me, it’s just trying to find a way to pull out what I think are interesting little bits of things that I deal with every day, he said. “Or finding a way to plug what we’re doing into conversations that are going on in the world at that moment.” The blog recently went through a redesign and content update under Wolfe’s leadership.

Outside of his historical work, Wolfe has also published literary essays and reviews, and teaches classes in creative nonfiction at WriterHouse. Even as a child he was a history buff but, for obvious reasons, he never focused on Virginia history while growing up in Iowa. He’s been an editor for most of his career though, and these skills made him the perfect fit for Encyclopedia Virginia. “The history [knowledge] came with time,” he said. “I felt like I just went through a master’s degree worth of reading for the first several years [at EV]. But history is more than just reading; it’s a discipline, a way of thinking about stuff. And I had to learn that, too.” Through his work with Encyclopedia Virginia and Obscure Histories, Wolfe hopes that readers around the world will take an interest in learning that discipline as well.

To read Wolfe’s upcoming article in Obscure Histories, visit www.obscurehistories.com.

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