The fourth and final season of the TV series TURN: Washington’s Spies premiers Saturday, June 17. We had the pleasure of interviewing Alexander Rose, whose book about the Culper spy ring inspired the series.
Your book Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring is the best known of several recent works on spycraft during the American Revolution. What drew you to research and write about this aspect of the war?
That’s kind of you to say, though I must confess that I came across this subject—Washington, the Culper Ring, and Revolutionary espionage in general—merely by happy accident. Sometime in 2005, I happened to be reading My Silent War, the memoirs of Kim Philby, the British traitor, and a biography of Benedict Arnold, and it seemed to me that Arnold had traditionally been written about as some kind of one-off; in other words, that there was something diabolically unique about him. Yet Philby had worked within an entire system of Soviet espionage as one of many, many Communist agents. What would happen if you applied the same reasoning to Arnold? Did he, too, work within a system of British intelligence-gathering? And if there were a British system, what about an American?
So I scouted around for books on American/British spookery during the War and, wierdly, came up with virtually nothing. The last academic article, if I recall correctly, that had been published about Revolutionary ciphers—a rather important field—had appeared in 1917. Assuming I was simply looking into the wrong place, I checked all sorts of other keywords in the card catalogue, phrases like “George Washington and Espionage,” and so forth—but again, drew almost nil. Even stranger, the subject was barely mentioned, if at all, in biographies of Washington. Now, there are all sorts of reasons why Washington was so rarely identified with espionage—it was an ungentlemanly pursuit, he could not tell a lie, etc.—but the omission was startling. Yet the more deeply I researched, I found ever-mounting evidence that both the British and the Americans had fought a long shadow war. There was a system, in other words.
At that point, I thought I had the basis of a book, but I realized that a general history of spying would be long, confusing, and rather tedious. So I went back and tried to dig up some information on specific spies, thinking that I could interweave a discussion of espionage operations with their personal story. It was then that I stumbled across the Culper Ring in a 1930s book by an elderly amateur historian named Morton Pennypacker and it went from there. The problem with Pennypacker, who I should say did much sterling work, was that he was informed by a kind of High Victorian romanticism, lacked the inclination to provide footnotes, and had a weakness for lavishly embroidering sometimes rather skimpy material. From the get-go, I was determined to examine the Culper Ring’s activities from a scholarly point of view: Base the narrative on written sources, avoid anachronism as much as possible, demolish encrusted, if cherished, myths, and tell the story warts-and-all.
The Culpers were a godsend: Almost uniquely in the annals of serious intelligence literature, where anonymous codenames are the rule, they had left behind a trove of documents and letters detailing their exploits, fears, and frailties. Their varied personalities shone through. We also had Washington’s letters to his agents, so you can actually see their summoner, almoner, and confessor reacting in real-time to their activities. Put it all together, sort the letters into chronological order, and decrypt the coded ones, and you had the biography of Washington’s personal spy ring.
For any historian, once you’ve caught scent of a trail like that it’s hard not to get obsessed by the chase. Thus, for a year, I worked as a private detective, piecing together the hidden clues to this lost world of espionage and trying—you can be the judge of whether I was successful—to shine a light into the murk and illuminate its importance to the overall war effort.
How did your own understanding of the American Revolution, and the specific topic you were dealing with, change as you researched and wrote the book?
I was originally a medievalist and then an aviation historian, and I was educated in Britain, so with all that in mind you’ll perhaps forgive me for my initial somewhat unsophisticated and untutored opinion that the Revolution was about some spoiled colonists whining a lot about tax and dumping some tea in a harbor or something. That embarrassing and foolish view has changed. As I more deeply studied the politics and background of New York for the book, I became increasingly interested in the local responses to rebellion and how they shifted over the years, as well as intrigued by the notion that the war was a civil one resembling, to a degree, its English predecessor a century earlier—with which, of course, colonial (if not today’s) Americans were very familiar. I’m also fascinated by the way in which wars change their character over time: The Revolutionary War, like the (American or English) Civil War or the Great War or the Second World War or the various Iraq Wars, all began as one thing and ended as quite another.
What was the biggest surprise or revelation?
The biggest surprise was certainly discovering the vast, heaving underworld of Revolutionary espionage. There were scores, maybe hundreds, of agents operating, with varying levels of ability, duration, and loyalty throughout the war.
Tell us about your role in the development and production of the television series TURN.
It’s very simple: My role in the original development and production of TURN was precisely zero. The book came out in 2006 and I had moved on to different things when, one day, I think in 2012, a producer named Barry Josephson rang me and said he’d like to option the book. So I said, “OK, send me a check,” which he did, and then I promptly forgot about it, assuming, as is the case with 999 books out of a thousand, nothing would come of it. It turned out that Barry discussed the idea with Craig Silverstein, who wrote a script for a pilot for AMC, which I did not see until after it was submitted. This was a couple of years later. Until then, Craig and I had never spoken, the reason being that television writers are loath to allow book writers to see scripts for fear of interference and complaints. You can see how that could become a problem. But I loved the script and thought it was terrific and fun. Barry and Craig were kind enough to invite me to come see the pilot being shot in Virginia, so I tootled along for two weeks and tried to keep out of the way. At the end of it, Craig suggested I come to Los Angeles to help out with story ideas when he opened the writers’ room. At the end of the first season, he asked me if I were willing to come aboard as a writer/producer, so that’s when I tried my hand at cranking out an episode.
An effective TV series requires very different elements of pacing, character development, and plot progression than a history book does. What sorts of challenges did you encounter in integrating historical reality with dramatic storytelling?
The basic principle, I think, is that History is Complex and Drama is Simple. It’s impossible, in other words, to just “film the book” (or any serious history book, not just “Washington’s Spies”), as that would result in a turgid series of events and clumsy exposition. It’d resemble televising an encyclopedia. The full reality of the past cannot be captured visually, so you have to cut whatever’s strictly unnecessary in order to focus on the demands of the story, the arcs of the characters, and the need to world-build. Our general rule-of-thumb was to keep certain parts but to fill in the blanks at other times. For example, we never messed around with dates of, say, battles, but we dramatized character interactions at those particular battles.
But is it “accurate”? As an historian, I get asked that a lot, and my answer is that the issue of “accuracy” in adapted television or film has been present since the very beginning of the medium. Or, indeed, of any form of entertainment. Thus, one might ask the very same of, say, Shakespeare’s history plays, which he cribbed from Holinshed’s Chronicles.
In short, it’s a question with no solution, maddeningly. The main problem, as I see it, is that “accuracy” is a non-definable term and it means different things depending upon the context. What does it include, for instance, and how accurate is accurate? By accuracy, do you mean getting a particular historical personality’s character “right” or do you mean adhering to conventional interpretations of a given event or do you mean getting dates correct or do you mean having the right number of buttons on someone’s uniform or do you mean trying to avoid obvious clangers like redcoats wearing Apple Watches or muskets firing multiple times without reloading? How, for that matter, should one handle period dialogue without leaving viewers confused by unfamiliar grammar and vocabulary? And on top of all that you still have to account for balancing the wants of expert viewers with the cares of a general audience tuning in to see a story unfold.
I’ll admit that I used to think accuracy, howsoever one evaluates it, was everything and would loudly and gleefully point out wherever a particular show or flick went “wrong,” but the experience of grappling with these practical issues in a working studio environment over four years changed my mind. Put bluntly, it’s impossible to make a perfectly “accurate” show or movie because no one can hit all the randomly defined moving targets, though some, of course, value that unattainable ideal more than others.
At TURN, we were faced with these kinds of difficult questions every day and strove to accommodate what we could with limited time and stretched resources. We got some things “wrong,” I’m sure, but we also got many more things (sometimes small, sometimes big) “right”—which usually passed by unnoticed or unremarked upon.
To me, then, a much more profitable avenue is to focus not on the desiccated issue of “accuracy” but on authenticity. In other words, does a given show or movie conjure an alien and long-vanished world to life, does it fire the imaginations and stoke the interest of viewers who knew nothing about the subject, does it relay to an audience the kinds of conflicts, challenges, and contradictions faced by people of that era? Over the course of the show, I’ve received hundreds of emails from viewers saying that TURN has inspired them to go to the library to check out books on the Revolution; every year, I get enquiries from excited middle-schoolers telling me they’re submitting a project on the Culper Ring to the National History Day competitions; and I’m often invited to address local historical societies about, say, George Washington and espionage. I can’t give you exact numbers, of course, but from what I can gather, visitor attendance at the various sites associated with the Culper Ring has risen significantly. This was simply not the case before TURN (or, for that matter, the advent of JAR), and, to my mind, all of this interest is decidedly to the benefit of the study and continuing relevance of the American Revolution.
We at JAR are impressed with TURN’s portrayal of the war’s complexity, and the difficult choices individuals had to make when their principles were at odds with their survival; even if the specifics have been dramatized, the overall challenges ring true. What aspects of the series do you find most satisfying?
TURN is a series about people, and what we insisted upon, from the very beginning, is that we did not want to make a show with lantern-jawed Goodies (Americans) and chinless Baddies (British). Of course, we have villains and so forth, because you have to (and they’re the most fun to write), but even then we tried to round them out: Hey, even Simcoe has his good points, and I like the way in which Major Hewlett evolves and transforms over the course of the seasons. Our fundamental view was that the War of Independence was essentially a civil war, with all the complexity and nastiness that entails, while we also wanted to get across that “the British” were not a faceless mass but riven by their own internal factions and contending schools of thought (as, indeed, were the Americans). We additionally wanted to broaden the focus from the traditional emphasis on white males to include the roles played by women and minorities.
Which characterizations in TURN do you feel are most faithful to the original figures that they’re adapted from?
It’s difficult to say, exactly, but my view is that Ian Kahn has been terribly underheralded as Washington. He did an enormous amount of background research and studied the man intensely. When he was truly in character, it was very difficult to pierce the carapace. I think he’s the finest Washington there’s ever been (Story Idea for JAR: “Who’s the Best Washington?”).
If you could create your own TV series about the American Revolution, what would it be about, and would it be a documentary or a drama?
Well, I’ve kind of had my shot with TURN, I think.
We always have to ask the standard question: if you could interview one participant from the American Revolution, who would it be? And just to make it more interesting, is this answer different than it would’ve been before you started the research for Washington’s Spies?
One is a lonely number, so I’ll beg your indulgence and select two, both of whom reflect my connoisseurial interest in protean historical characters. I’d start with William Smith, a well-connected lawyer and historian in New York who swung back and forth between the two sides vainly trying to mitigate the worst excesses of both. He was one of those doomed souls crushed between impersonal forces beyond his ken, a little like Thomas Hutchinson. And second, I’d have loved to have had a chance to chinwag with William Heron, a triple agent (he worked for the British, he worked for the Americans, but most of all, he worked for himself) whose grand treachery was only revealed a century later—that’s how good he was. I hadn’t heard of either when I started the book, so I guess that’s the big change. I couldn’t include Smith in Washington’s Spies, unfortunately, but I devoted some space to Heron.
Do you have any plans for further work dealing with the American Revolution?
None as yet, perhaps to the relief of your readers. I’ve done the spy angle, and I covered some military aspects in the Bunker Hill chapter of another book, Men of War, so I’m somewhat Revolutioned out for the time being. At the moment, I’m working on a book about the Hindenburg and airships for a change of scene.