Russell Shorto


  • 2017

    • How to Grow a Tree in the Desert,

      President Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord was perplexing to Europeans for many reasons, not least of which was their determination that climate change represents a for-profit opportunity. In particular, the Dutch, who more or less invented water management in Europe, a millennium or so ago, have developed(…) Continue Reading →

    • Washington, Trump, and the End of Humility,

      On April 16, 1789, George Washington stepped into a carriage at Mount Vernon, his Virginia estate, and rumbled off toward New York and the Presidency. Far from feeling flush with imminent power, he told his diary that he contemplated the task ahead “with a mind oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations than I have(…) Continue Reading →


    • John Hersey,

      Seventy years ago, this magazine devoted its entire August 31st issue to an article by John Hersey titled “Hiroshima.” It became a landmark in journalism, in publishing, and in humanity’s awareness of itself and its own awful potential…

    • An Economic Moment, Frozen in Time,

      Three years ago I moved to the panhandle of western Maryland. It’s a wild, mountainous region. There are some lovely Victorian town centers, and also hardscrabble hamlets tucked into the valleys that are comprised largely of low-slung ranch houses fronted by chain-link fences and rusted pickup trucks. The past has a way of lingering in(…) Continue Reading →

    • The Lord of the Hops,

      Not long ago, I found myself in a beer-tasting room in upstate New York, looking out on a field of hops and sampling the craft brews of a company called Indian Ladder Farmstead. Among the list of beers chalked on a blackboard was one particularly hoppy creation named “Dr. Paul Matthews I.P.A.” Naturally I felt(…) Continue Reading →


    • The Unique Way the Dutch Mourn

      A cultural conundrum that I struggled to comprehend during my six years of living in Amsterdam concerned the Dutch attitude toward celebrities. They are passionate about their own celebrities – far more than about Hollywood stars, which is fair enough – but in the midst of intensely gossiping about a homegrown film or sports personality,(…) Continue Reading →

    • On a General’s Trail

      When we told friends last year that we had decided to move from Europe to the mountains of western Maryland, we got the same response (complete with italics) over and over: Why? Point taken. Our new home, while it excels in hiking trails and glorious views, is not especially great for culture, restaurants, night life(…) Continue Reading →

    • How to Think Like the Dutch in a Post-Sandy World

      In December 2012, Shaun Donovan, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, was on vacation in Berlin when he decided to detour to the Netherlands. He wanted to get a firsthand sense of the famed Dutch approach to water management. Hurricane Sandy struck six weeks before, and in the aftermath, President Obama asked him to(…) Continue Reading →


    • The Ghosts of Amsterdam

      It only recently occurred to me that one very fine if not exactly intentional purpose for historic preservation is to keep dead people alive. Having spent the past several years living in Amsterdam and researching a book about its history, I now find that virtually anywhere I walk in this city, whose center has been(…) Continue Reading →

    • Digging Up Family Roots in Sicily

      As a writer I’ve always tended to seek out origins. My first book, about the search for the historical Jesus, was an attempt to get at the “real” story behind my Catholic upbringing. After living in Manhattan for several years, I wrote “The Island at the Center of the World,” a book about the Dutch(…) Continue Reading →

    • Quirks of Amsterdam, Revealed During Lunch

      The Haarlemmerstraat in Amsterdam is a narrow enough thoroughfare that from my office window I can easily see into the shops across the street. There is the olive oil boutique, with its rows of metal barrels and its sign inside saying “Check Your Oil,” and the coffee shop that young, nattily dressed tourists wander into(…) Continue Reading →


    • The Way Greeks Live Now

      In a little brick-walled taverna in Athens, over a lunch of Cretan salad and stuffed grape leaves, a Greek journalist named Aris Hadjigeorgiou was holding forth one day in late November about the calamitous state of his city and country as only a veteran metropolitan reporter could. He explicated the insidious ways in which the(…) Continue Reading →


    • Marine Le Pen, France’s Kinder, Gentler Extremist

      Step inside an office building in the town of Nanterre, just west of Paris, and you are confronted by what the nostrils register as an odor of the past, for it’s a rare thing these days to encounter the lingering taint of cigarette smoke in public spaces. The trail of it leads upstairs to a(…) Continue Reading →

    • The Nanny and Her Sister

      [Note: This is an English-language version, slightly revised, of an opinion piece that appeared in Dutch on 4/24/11] Not long ago my son’s Moroccan-born gastouder (daycare provider) asked if I would sign an immigration document in support of her sister, who wanted to come to Amsterdam to visit. I was confused at first: I thought one(…) Continue Reading →

    • The Irish Affliction

      Andrew Madden is one of a relatively new breed of Irish celebrities who would just as soon be less well known. He was among the first people in Ireland to go public about being sexually abused by Catholic clergy — one of those who set off the intense bout of soul-searching that has racked the(…) Continue Reading →


    • The Integrationist

      UPDATE, January 2011:  This article was written during the very small window of time when Job Cohen–who as mayor of Amsterdam was internationally lauded for keeping a densely multiethnic city together during the post-9/11 era–stepped into the frontrunner’s position in the race to become prime minister of the Netherlands.  Even as I was finishing it,(…) Continue Reading →

    • “Making Haste From Babylon” (Book Review)

      In 2006, Nathaniel Philbrick wrote “Mayflower,” a history of the Pilgrims that attempted to wipe centuries of mythic buildup from the dour features of America’s European primogenitors. Now Nick Bunker has written another history of the Pilgrims, which tries to do more or less the same thing. Yet the two books — both admirable — are(…) Continue Reading →

    • How Christian Were the Founders? (cover story)

      LAST MONTH, A WEEK before the Senate seat of the liberal icon Edward M. Kennedy fell into Republican hands, his legacy suffered another blow that was perhaps just as damaging, if less noticed. It happened during what has become an annual spectacle in the culture wars. Over two days, more than a hundred people — Christians,(…) Continue Reading →


    • Going Dutch

      PICTURE ME, IF YOU WILL, as I settle at my desk to begin my workday, and feel free to use a Vermeer image as your template. The pale-yellow light that gives Dutch paintings their special glow suffuses the room. The interior is simple, with high walls and beams across the ceiling. The view through the windows(…) Continue Reading →

    • “The Invention of Air” (book review)

      The Age of Categories is dead. Strangely, it never went by that name, or any name. Also curious is the fact that its boundaries are unclear: it overlapped the Age of Enlightenment, the Age of Reason and some others, but succumbed to the atomizing atmosphere of the Information Age. Knowledge, it held, went hand in(…) Continue Reading →


    • Relics of Reason

    • Descartes’ Bones

    • Childless Europe (cover story)

      IT WAS A SPECTACULAR LATE-MAY AFTERNOON IN SOUTHERN ITALY, but the streets of Laviano — a gloriously situated hamlet ranged across a few folds in the mountains of the Campania region — were deserted. There were no day-trippers from Naples, no tourists to take in the views up the steep slopes, the olive trees on(…) Continue Reading →


    • Keeping the Faith (cover story)

      Walk into a shop to buy a newspaper or a wurst or a Game Boy in the German city of Regensburg and your server will probably welcome you with a brisk “grüss’ Gott,” shorthand for “God greet you.” It’s the local form of hello: street-corner dudes and grandmas, everyone says it. This is Bavaria, Germany’s Catholic(…) Continue Reading →


    • Contra-Contraception (cover story)

      The English writer Daniel Defoe is best remembered today for creating the ultimate escapist fantasy, “Robinson Crusoe,” but in 1727 he sent the British public into a scandalous fit with the publication of a nonfiction work called “Conjugal Lewdness: or, Matrimonial Whoredom.” After apparently being asked to tone down the title for a subsequent edition,(…) Continue Reading →

    • “Slavery in New York” (book review)

      HISTORICAL amnesia has always been with us: we just keep forgetting we have it. How is it that societies can block out or deny whole chunks of their past for which there may be cartloads’, libraries’, mass graves’ worth of reminders? Maybe this kind of knowing and not-knowing is a necessary thing for a people’s(…) Continue Reading →

    • This Very, Very Old House

      In 1625, a carpenter named Pieter Fransz built a house on the outskirts of Amsterdam. He was young, ambitious and lucky enough to belong to one of history’s greatest generations: his life spanned the course of his country’s golden age, when tiny Holland became an empire and Amsterdam grew into Europe’s wealthiest city. Fransz walked(…) Continue Reading →


    • All Political Ideas Are Local

      In January 1861, as Southern states were in the process of seceding from the union, Fernando Wood, the mayor of New York, made a modest proposal to his city council. New Yorkers – whose city profited from the shipping of Southern cotton – weren’t crazy about the idea of a civil war. Wood’s idea was(…) Continue Reading →

    • What’s Their Real Problem With Gay Marriage? (cover story)

      The small but grandiose building at the corner of Eighth and G Streets NW in Washington, tucked directly behind the National Portrait Gallery, holds its own in a city packed with monumental architecture. You step into the lobby and automatically look around for a plaque, figuring that with its dark wood paneling and marble columns,(…) Continue Reading →

    • Shangri-La-Di-Da

      Appropriately enough for one of the most intense countries on earth, the experience of the kingdom of Bhutan begins before you get there: Hanging in 10,000 feet of blue sky, you see the rippling knuckles of the Himalayas arrayed below and snowbound ridges falling into green-black clefts. It’s a landscape that could serve for a(…) Continue Reading →


    • Faith at Work (cover story)

      Across the Judean desert, over the opal waves of the Mediterranean, along stone-paved roads that scored the plains of Syria and Asia Minor and carried into the heart of Rome, the Word spread 20 centuries ago. And as it did, it transmitted itself less in houses of worship than in the tents of carpet sellers,(…) Continue Reading →

    • The Industry Standard

      A story about music could do worse than to begin at Carnegie Hall. We’re here for a little night music — or rather, more than a little. The plan is to see three performers this evening, and the complication that two of them will be appearing on different stages at the same time only adds(…) Continue Reading →

    • The Future of the Past

      “To take no sides in history would be as false as to take no sides in life,” the historian Barbara W. Tuchman once wrote. If that applies to the written word, it is just as true for the presentation of history in museums. Museums can’t be objective because history isn’t. To be meaningful, a museum(…) Continue Reading →

    • Al Franken, Seriously (cover story)

      I’m in a rental car with Al Franken, and we’re driving across New Hampshire on the Sunday before the nation’s first primary, heading to a John Edwards rally. The Democrats are in a kooky mood following the sudden collapse of Howard Dean in Iowa, and Franken — comedian, celebrity, scourge — is spending two days(…) Continue Reading →

    • My Life on Darts

      I am not a warrior by nature. Except, of course, on Friday nights. Then, with the dusky odor of adrenaline in the air, I can be spotted arching forward, taut but loose, fingertips gripping hard steel, the world reduced to a single spot seven feet nine and a quarter inches away. As a hush envelopes(…) Continue Reading →

    • The Streets Where History Lives

      Acre for acre, Lower Manhattan may be the most historic piece of real estate in America. Here the Sons of Liberty plotted revolution, the Stamp Act Congress met to defy taxation without representation, colonists exchanged fire with British ships in the harbor, and General Washington and his officers celebrated their victory. The first president was(…) Continue Reading →

    • A Short-Order Revolutionary

      It starts — just as your mother told you it should — with a good breakfast. Two fried eggs, yolks bouncing brightly. Burly strips of bacon with alternating strata of red meat and glowing fat. The potatoes are nubby and brown, the toast thickly wedged, a light crunch followed by a satisfyingly dense chew. Strong(…) Continue Reading →


    • The Un-Pilgrims

      PUTNAM VALLEY, N.Y. — Three hundred and eighty years ago, a huddled band of Europeans set out across the Atlantic to seek a new life in wilderness America. They survived hardship, gave thanks, ate turkeys and eventually flourished. And every year at Thanksgiving we ignore them. No, I’m not talking about the Pilgrims, nor about(…) Continue Reading →


    • McLaughlin? Is That a Jewish Name?

      It is a mild december evening in Georgia, and in the community room of their synagogue in the town of Marietta, Felton and Deborah McLaughlin talk with typical parental pride about their elder daughter’s bat mitzvah, which took place earlier in the year. Felton, wearing a purple skullcap, smiles at the memory. ”It was literally(…) Continue Reading →

About the Author

  I was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. I have three children (Anna, Eva and Anthony) and three step-children (Reinier, Hector and Benjamin).  I write books of narrative history; I believe history is most meaningful to us when it manifests itself through individuals in conflict. My books have been published in fourteen languages and have won numerous awards.  I am senior scholar at the New Netherland Institute and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. My interests include the past, the present and the future, not necessarily in that order.  

photo by Keke Keukelaar