Barnet Schecter


Barnet Schecter, an independent historian, is the author of George Washington’s America: A Biography Through His MapsThe Devil’s Own Work: The Civil War Draft Riots and the Fight to Reconstruct America and The Battle for New York: The City at the Heart of the American Revolution. He was an advisor for the New-York Historical Society’s exhibit, Lincoln and New York, and a contributor to the companion volume. A contributing editor of the three-volume Encyclopedia of the American Revolution and Landmarks of the American Revolution, he is also a contributor to the Encyclopedia of New York City. He is a fellow of the New York Academy of History. In addition to lecturing and leading tours and military staff rides, he has appeared in a variety of television documentaries. His writing has appeared in The Times Literary Supplement (London), The New York Observer, MetropolisThe Village VoiceThe Washington PostTerra Nova (MIT Press), and other publications.

His interest in architecture, urban planning, and urban history evolved from his first career, as a sculptor. He holds a B.A., magna cum laude, from Yale University and an M.F.A. from Queens College, CUNY. Sculpture, architecture and urban planning are, of course, related arts since all are concerned with three-dimensional design, with the relationships of volumes in space. Any city, considered as a single form, is a sculpture on a grand scale. Barnet Schecter’s engagement with the similarities between these disciplines began in 1981, when he spent a semester studying sculpture at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts in Milan. He traveled widely in Italy and found inspiration in the juxtapositions of ancient and modern architectural elements in the large cities as well as in the perfectly preserved medieval hill towns. Particularly when seen from a distance, in their entirety, the towns have strong sculptural qualities. However, their formal unity, unlike a piece of sculpture, is the result of slow accretion, of individual buildings added over time—under the influence of myriad religious, social and political forces.

This interest in the complex human forces that shape the built environment has influenced Barnet Schecter’s writing ever since. He returned to the United States and wrote his history thesis at Yale about a medieval square that is preserved today in the center of Milan, Italy’s most cosmopolitan city. He then moved to New York in 1986 and subsequently began writing about the particular influences that shape this city. His book about New York in the American Revolution is a natural outgrowth of his interests and experiences: In it he recreates the human story of the 18th century battles, while locating them in the fabric of the modern city. The book provides a walking tour of the historic sites that have been preserved or marked, while the main narrative also enables the reader to imagine those that haven’t. Similarly, his second book, The Devil’s Own Work, includes an extensive walking tour of Civil War New York. George Washington’s America, a unique biography inspired by the maps Washington owned and drew throughout his life, includes views of important cities—New York, Quebec, Savannah—but takes a broader perspective, revealing Washington’s lifelong focus on the terrain of North America, both rural and urban, and shedding new light on the man and his times.

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