Married; children: a son. Education: Graduated from Yale University, 1974.
Home—Charlottesville, VA. Agent—Howard Morhaim Literary Agency, 841 Broadway, Suite 604, New York, NY 10003.
Writer and historian.
National Book Critics Circle Award, 1999, for The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White.
(With Joyce Milton) Frontiers of Europe: Russia of the Czars, Portugal of the Navigators, preface by James Miller, HBJ Press (New York, NY), 1980.
(With Glenn D. Lowry) Storm across Asia, preface by W. M. Thackston, Jr., HBJ Press (New York, NY), 1980.
(With Thomas Dickey and Vance Muse) The God-Kings of Mexico, Stonehenge (Chicago, IL), 1982.
(With Thomas Dickey and John Man) The Kings of El Dorado, Stonehenge (Chicago, IL), 1982.
Lords of Japan, Stonehenge (Chicago, IL), 1982.
The World of LEGO Toys, H.N. Abrams (New York, NY), 1987.
Mansions of the Virginia Gentry, photography by Paul Rocheleau, Oxmoor House (Birmingham, AL), 1988.
Plantations of the Old South, photography by Paul Rocheleau, Oxmoor House (Birmingham, AL), 1988.
Southern New England, special photography by Paul Rocheleau, Stewart, Tabori & Chang (New York, NY), 1989, revised edition, 1998.
Virginia and the Capital Region, Stewart, Tabori & Chang (New York, NY), 1989, revised and updated edition, 1998.
Old Houses, photography by Steve Gross and Susan Daley, Stewart, Tabori & Chang (New York, NY), 1991.
(With Donna M. Lucey) National Geographic Guide to America's Great Houses: More than 150 Outstanding Mansions Open to the Public, National Geographic Society (Washington, DC), 1999.
The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1999.
An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, NY), 2003.
Author has contributed to numerous magazines, including the Smithsonian and American Heritage.
The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White is being adapted as a television mini-series for CBS.
Henry Wiencek is a prominent, award-winning historian who has written a wide range of books, including guides to historic America, a history of a successful toy company, and books focusing on the history of slavery and race relations in the United States. In his book The World of LEGO Toys, Wiencek reveals the history behind the founding and phenomenal growth of the LEGO toy empire built upon the interlocking plastic LEGO bricks played with by children around the world. In addition to providing a history of the toy company, which began in the 1930s making small wooden toys and yo-yos, Wiencek provides a series of instructions for building some LEGO-based toys. Writing in Booklist, reviewer Martin A. Brady called the book a "paean of praise to LEGOs."
Wiencek also served as editor and wrote a series of books for the "Smithsonian Guide to Historic America" series. The books are part history and part travel guide to some of America's most historic sites. For example, in Southern New England and Virginia and the Capital Region, Wiencek provides both in-depth coverage of the region's history but also a variety of data needed by vacationers and travelers who want to visit the sites, including information on local museums, mansions, parks, battlefields, bridges, and noteworthy streets. "These first entries give evidence of terrific travel and reference resources," wrote Denise Perry Donavin in Booklist.
In his 1999 book The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, Wiencek traces the history of one of America's wealthiest and most influential families prior to the Civil War. One of the largest slaveholders in the South, the Hairstons had forty-five plantations and more than 10,000 slaves. In time, the family spawned both black and white offspring. The author spent eight years researching the family's "maddeningly complex genealogical configuration," as noted by a contributor to Kirkus Reviews. During the course of his research for The Hairstons, Wiencek spent a lot of time with black members of the Hairston family and other black family researchers. "For them, the question of their origins is one of the things that drives them to search into their past," Wiencek told Publishers Weekly contributor Sarah F. Gold in an interview. "I think that lies at the foundation of what our national identity is."
In The Hairstons, Wiencek traces the history of both branches of the family, as the white Hairstons sought to keep the wealth for themselves and to keep their black kin enslaved. Eventually, the white and black family fortunes turned as the slave-based empire of the white Hairstons faded after the South was defeated in the Civil War, while the black Hairstons went on to freedom and a new life. The Kirkus Reviews contributor called The Hairstons an "intriguing" book but thought Wiencek's approach to the history was too "subdued." Vanessa Bush, writing in Booklist, noted, "This is a fascinating, well-documented book that explores the complexity of family and racial relationships in the U.S." A Publishers Weekly contributor said of Wiencek and the book, "He intends his book as a national 'parable of redemption'—and he succeeds, admirably, in presenting the Hairstons as a metaphor for the nation while also presenting the specificity of their history."
The book about the Hairstons bolstered Wiencek's interest in early race relations in the United States. For his next book, he initially planned to focus on the revolutionary period in general. "I wanted to look into that paradox that we fought a war for freedom and liberty, yet we didn't free the slaves," he told Gold in the Publishers Weekly interview. When his publisher suggested writing about Washington as well, Wiencek was hesitant at first. He finally decided Washington would be the focus of his book when news reports began to emerge that Washington had fathered a child with a slave, although Wiencek thought the report unlikely to be true. "The main thing that drew me in was that Washington freed his slaves," he told Gold. He also noted, "Washington was the only founding father who did that."
In An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, Wiencek explores the complex personality of the first president of the United States with a special focus on the evolution of Washington's response to the moral dilemma presented by slavery. According to Wiencek, the turning point for Washington probably came when he witnessed the auctioning off in Williamsburg, Virginia, of an embezzler's holdings, including his slaves. Washington was deeply outraged to see slave families torn apart strictly by the whims of the highest bidders. As he neared the end of his life, Washington became the only founding father to free his slaves, although he did so only posthumously. Alan Pell Crawford, writing in the Wall Street Journal, noted, "This gripping story of moral reform adds greatly to our understanding of this most remote of Founders." A Publishers Weekly contributor called the book an "important work sure to be of compelling interest to anyone concerned with the nation's origins, its founders and its history of race slavery." In the New York Times, reviewer Janet Maslin noted, "[Washington's] final redeeming gesture—leaving a will that freed slaves—cannot be seen as a simple, bold stroke. It makes sense only in the larger, richer context that Mr. Wiencek's book vividly creates."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, December 1, 1987, Martin A. Brady, review of The World of LEGO Toys, p. 594; April 1, 1989, Denise Perry Donavin, review of Virginia and the Capital Region and Southern New England, p. 1342; February 15, 1999, Vanessa Bush, review of The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, p. 1036.
Country Living, December, 1991, review of Old Houses, p. 122.
Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 1999, review of The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, pp. 289-290; September 1, 2003, review of An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, p. 1117.
Library Journal, March 1, 1992, Norma Allenbach, review of Virginia and the Capital Region, p. 59; February 1, 1999, Brooks D. Simpson, review of The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, p. 108; September 1, 2003, Nathan Ward, review of An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, p. 38.
New York Times, November 3, 2003, Janet Maslin, review of An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, p. E7.
Publishers Weekly, January 18, 1999, review of The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, p. 316; September 8, 2003, review of An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, p. 63; September 8, 2003, Sarah F. Gold, "Slaves and Masters: All in the Family," interview with Henry Wiencek, p. 64.
Time, June 21, 1999, Virginia Donelson, review of The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, p. 81.
Wall Street Journal, November 5, 2003, Alan Pell Crawford, review of An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, p. D10.*