Good Life

Retired professor helps readers remember a revolution

Retired Penn State professor Dean Snow poses with his book, “1777: Tipping Point at Saratoga,” in his study in his State College home.
Retired Penn State professor Dean Snow poses with his book, “1777: Tipping Point at Saratoga,” in his study in his State College home.

Professor Dean Snow has retired a grand total of three times now.

This last hiatus is expected to stick, but that doesn’t mean that Snow plans on slowing down. His latest book, “1777: Tipping Point at Saratoga,” takes readers back to one of the most notorious battlefields of the American Revolution.

The author’s voice works in tandem with others that have been preserved for hundreds of years in the pages of letters, journals and memoirs, bolstered by archaeological remains from the site.

Below, Snow talks more about his proclivity for the past.

Q: What’s the last great book that you read?

A: “The Gene: An Intimate History,” by Siddhartha Mukherjee. It was one of three wonderful Father’s Day presents this year. I recommend it.

Q: When did archeology first come into the picture for you? What was your inspiration?

A: I found two books by Ann Axtell Morris in the public library of my little hometown of Sleepy Eye, Minn., when I was 12 years old. They were “Digging in the Southwest” and “Digging in Yucatan.” I was hooked. I later mentioned them to my band teacher, whose brother happened to be a well-known American archaeologist. The brother, Robert Ritzenthaller, wrote me a letter of encouragement. At 12, I didn’t know how to deal with advice on graduate schools, but it all worked out in the end.

Q: You have all of history at your disposal — why focus on 1777?

A: (My wife) Jan and I lived not far from the Saratoga battlefield for 26 years, raising our family there. It is a very special place, and it resonated with me from the beginning. When I was asked to start an archaeological project there in 1972, I could not have been happier. That work led me to get to know the participants intimately, even though removed from them by two centuries. 1777 truly was a tipping point in world history, and one that we can all relate to. For me it was a natural convergence of circumstances.

Q:What’s the most frustrating aspect of trying to put a book like “1777: Tipping Point at Saratoga” together?

A: Every source was written by someone with a unique perspective and sometimes with a serious bias. Thus every source must be critically evaluated. But many of the facts presented in these sources can rarely be tested using other contemporary sources because not enough of them have survived. Thus, I was sometimes on thin ice when evaluating specific assertions for veracity. I often had to decide whether to include something, include it with qualifications, or leave it out entirely because it was based on insufficient evidence.

Q: If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice before starting work on this book, what would it be and why?

A: This is a hard question to answer because circumstances have led me from one lucky break to another, with no major setbacks long the way. I was also smart enough to write the entire book before talking to any editors. That way I didn’t have anyone trying to persuade me early on to write it in a different and more traditional historian’s way. The only advice I would give to myself would be to take social media more seriously early on. That’s how younger audiences are reached these days. I got a late start in that world.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I published my “Archaeology of Native North America” in 2010. Since then there have been many new discoveries and a different publisher has purchased the rights to the book. They are eager for a new edition and I will probably produce one over the next 12 months. My New Year’s resolution for 2016 was to read more and write less, but I persist out of habit. My family says that if I ever get done with all of this I should not expect yet another retirement party.

Frank Ready: 814-231-4620, @fjready