About this series: Lighting the Way With … is a periodic series in which we shine a light on Lawrence University alumni. Today we catch up with Tom Zoellner ’91, a journalist, author, and English professor who this spring won the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction.
Tom Zoellner ’91 carved out an impressive run as a journalist by seeing stories where others didn’t, drilling down to the why, and always being present, all things he first explored as a Lawrence student three decades ago.
In addition to investigative work, he has relished telling stories that on the surface might seem mundane—ordinary landscapes, he said—but speak to the deeper fabric of life, connections that span generations or unite communities or otherwise tell us something about ourselves that we didn’t know or understand.
“There’s great value in ordinary America,” Zoellner said.
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He told those stories while interning at The Post-Crescent in Appleton while a student at Lawrence and again and again while working at newspapers, large and small, across the country for 20 years, from the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Savannah Morning News to the Arizona Republic and San Francisco Chronicle.
That ability to look beyond what’s visible was front and center as Zoellner, 30 years removed from his Lawrence graduation and now an English professor at Chapman University in Los Angeles, recently authored his seventh non-fiction book, The National Road: Dispatches from a Changing America (Counterpoint Press), a collection of essays based on his travels across the United States.
A huge literary honor
The National Road has been well-received—the New York Times called Zoellner an “old-fashioned American vagabond”—but it’s book No. 6, Island on Fire: The Revolt That Ended Slavery in the British Empire, published in early 2020, that has earned him some particularly heady attention this year. The book was named the winner of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Award for Nonfiction in March, a prestigious honor. It beat out such notable finalists as Walter Johnson (The Broken Heart of America), James Shapiro (Shakespeare in a Divided America), Sarah Smarsh (She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs), and Isabel Wilkerson (Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent).
“It was a thrill, considering the field,” Zoellner said of the honor.
Island on Fire is a book that saw the light of day only for the bulldog spirit Zoellner honed during his newsroom days. It tells the story of an 1831 rebellion by enslaved people in the Caribbean, led by Samuel Sharpe, a Baptist deacon. Thousands would die in their pursuit of liberty from the British empire.
Zoellner shines a light on Sharpe, who is a hero in the Caribbean but has been a largely unknown figure to readers in America and elsewhere.
“I’m not a trained historian,” Zoellner said. “I approached the story almost like a journalist.”
At the outset, Zoellner was simply looking to write about sugar and the ways in which the British colonies grew and sold it in abundance. That eventually led him to the history of forced labor and other atrocities in the region and the eventual rebellion by the enslaved Sharpe and his followers.
“Books on sugar had already been done; I really couldn’t find an angle into that that was going to say anything new,” Zoellner said. “But I came across in Caribbean history the accounts of the 1831 uprising. I just couldn’t seem to let go of it. There was such incredible heroism, and it was a really consequential event on which very little attention, outside of Caribbean history, has been paid and no one book dedicated to it.”
He decided to dig deeper. He booked a flight to Jamaica, with some hesitation.
“I’m a Caucasian guy who lives in California,” Zoellner said. “A question arose internally for me, is this really my story to tell? Can I go to this venue and write with any credibility? I decided I could because this was really a global story. Sam Sharpe, who is at the center of this book, ought to be better known. He ought to be regarded as a hero on the level of Gandhi, or some of the Irish revolutionaries against British tolerance in Ireland, or some of the Polish revolutionaries against Russian rule. He obviously belongs to Jamaica, but I considered him a figure of global stature.”
Zoellner, who in addition to his teaching responsibilities serves as politics editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books, had a tough time finding a publisher who met his enthusiasm for the project. They didn’t see the story connecting with readers in the United States.
He finally landed at Harvard University Press and went through a difficult peer-review process.
“It was a matter of being stubborn enough to push forward,” Zoellner said. “I resolved that the book was going to get done. It wasn’t that I thought I had to rescue Sam Sharpe. No, please; the story had been told, but it had been told in the context of larger Caribbean history and not for a U.S. audience. I was just determined that the story of those five weeks of rebellion was going to be between two covers and would hopefully become a tiny part of the conversation.”
The National Book Critics Circle Award gave Zoellner some reassurance that his work had indeed resonated.
“It was a vindication of sorts,” he said. “Not of me but of the story; that the timeless ways of resistance to oppression is something that should be part of the dialogue. It’s incredible heroism that is mostly lost to history. Even with as much documentation as we have, there is so much about it we don’t know. This is a way those rebels can speak from beyond the grave.”
The art of storytelling
Zoellner’s most recent book, meanwhile, has been garnering its own attention. When it came out in mid-2020, with a pandemic in full fury and a bitter election season fraying the public mood, The National Road seemed like a needed tonic. It introduced readers to a series of off-beat places and the people who live or work or hide there, infused with joy and anger, hope and despair.
“Over the past two decades, he has made some 30 cross-country drives and hundreds of ‘lesser partial crossings,’ both as a journalist on assignment and as a tourist with a taste for obscure landmarks and truck-stop breakfasts,” the New York Times wrote in a review of Zoellner’s book. “The National Road is a chronicle of Zoellner’s wanderings and wanderlust, what he calls his ‘unspecified hunger’ to cover the lower 48 states with ‘a coat of invisible paint.’ It’s also a sneakily ambitious book whose 13 ‘dispatches’ present a sweeping view of the American land and its inhabitants—how each has shaped, and deformed, the other.”
National Public Radio called The National Road “a fascinating investigation into American places and themes; metaphors for our country.”
Zoellner followed up the release of The National Road with an essay of another sort of travel, one that told of a trip he and a classmate took to Spillville, Iowa, during spring break while students at Lawrence in 1991. Unexpected Lessons from the Back Roads of the American Midwest was featured on lithub.com in October, giving Zoellner a chance to connect some dots from that quirky road trip to the twists and turns and heartbreaks that would color a life’s journey.
It all adds to an impressive resume that includes earlier books on the diamond trade (The Heartless Stone), how uranium changed the world (Uranium), the Gabrielle Giffords shooting (A Safeway in Arizona), and the history and influence of trains (Train).
Lessons from Lawrence
This is where Zoellner takes his thoughts back to his undergrad days at Lawrence and the early exploration of his newspaper career. His curiosity, his keen ability to observe, and his desire to make sense of it all 1,000 words at a time were first nurtured here, in and out of the classroom.
He came to Appleton in 1987 from his home state of Arizona, having never before been out of the Southwest.
“Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota; it all seemed exotic to me,” Zoellner said. “I was provincial and had not traveled at that point. So, the landscapes my classmates considered totally ordinary and boring, like dairy farms and silos and lakes, I thought they were wonderful, incredibly picturesque. Even parts of the industrial plumbing such as paper mills, locks on the river, various other kinds of factories, I thought they were beautiful. That probably sounds pretty weird to somebody from northeast Wisconsin, where it’s just part of the wallpaper, but for me it was like walking into a different world.”
He vowed to explore Appleton and the rest of Wisconsin and not to isolate himself on campus. He wrote for The Lawrentian, eventually becoming its editor. He pestered editors at The Post-Crescent to give him an internship.
The lessons, he said, flowed from there.
“A big part of my education at Lawrence came from the marination in the Fox Valley, thinking of myself not as a tourist but as a resident of the Fox Valley,” he said. “Working at The Post-Crescent was a huge education in the way government worked there, the way society fit together, the wonderful people in the Fox Valley. For students, it’s easy to miss out on that.”
Zoellner came to Lawrence knowing he wanted to be a journalist. He bypassed traditional journalism schools because he wanted the liberal arts experience, a wide-ranging course of study infused with historic sensibilities, context, and critical thinking. That, he believed, would inform his ability to tell stories others weren’t telling.
“That’s why I picked Lawrence in the first place,” Zoellner said. “Not just because it was in the upper Midwest and a long way from Arizona but because of that classic liberal arts emphasis. I still believe that. Getting that sort of multi-faceted approach, which is not vocationally driven, is the winning way to go.”
As he marks his 30-year Lawrence anniversary, Zoellner remains connected to Lawrence. He talks periodically with some faculty; he struck up friendships with Monica Rico in the History Department and David McGlynn in the English Department, both of whom arrived after he had already graduated. He applauded Lawrence’s recent decision to create a creative writing major as part of its English program. It speaks, he said, to all the things that helped him find his voice all those years ago.
Lawrence, after all, was the first stop on a winding journey that continues to reveal itself in unexpected ways.
“That sense of fascination with what many consider ordinary landscapes, that’s something that still gives me great pleasure today,” Zoellner said.