David Hackett Fischer on his new biography of Samuel de Champlain





Historians sometimes like to engage in a game of "what if?" about the close calls and random twists of fate embedded in the drama of history.

A tantalizing opportunity for such speculation comes in what historian and author David Hackett Fischer calls "that high summer of 1609."

As the French explorer Samuel de Champlain paddled a canoe on July 31 to the southern edge of the lake that now bears his name, the English seaman Henry Hudson was sailing north along the river christened in his honor and anchored just north of Albany on Sept. 19.

They returned their respective ways and a great confluence of history was narrowly missed as the titanic explorers came within less than 100 miles and six weeks of meeting each other between Lake Champlain and the Hudson River.

"If they had met, they would have instantly interrogated each other about the New World and there would have been a lot of professional shop talk between explorers," Fischer said by phone recently from his office at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., where he has taught history since 1962.

"We know Champlain read accounts of Henry Hudson's travels and Champlain had a highly developed professional interest in what other explorers and mapmakers of his day were doing," he said.

Published this month to capitalize on planned 2009 quadricentennial celebrations of Hudson and Champlain, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian has written a comprehensive, magisterial biography, "Champlain's Dream" (Simon & Schuster, 834 pages, $40). It is intended to resurrect the extraordinary accomplishments of a protean figure largely overlooked in today's history courses. He will be in Albany on Thursday to discuss his work as a guest of the New York State Writers Institute.

"I'm an evangelist for history," said Fischer, 72, who has written 10 books while teaching full time. He became hooked on the past as a boy listening to the stories of his Aunt Eliza, elderly and blind, who described growing up on a farm outside Baltimore in the summer of 1863 and hearing "a sound like wind in the trees." It turned out to be a line of wagons that stretched for miles carrying wounded soldiers from the Battle of Gettysburg....


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