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Toasting Liberty

Former Times-Dispatch reporter Charles Slack explores the origins of the free speech struggle.



Back in the late ’80s and ’90s, author Charles Slack was a features writer and business reporter at The Richmond Times-Dispatch. He recalls his biggest news story as probably the battle between Virginia railroads CSX and Norfolk Southern over control of Conrail.

“It was a terrific fight that kept me on the front pages for weeks,” he says by email from his home in Connecticut. “But the little kid in me loved the fun side of the transportation beat — riding in a blimp, riding shotgun in an 18-wheeler bound for L.A., sitting in the cab of a locomotive from Richmond to D.C., taking a piloting lesson.”

He also wrote culture pieces about icons such as author Tom Wolfe. Slack’s longtime friend, local author Dean King, remembers his take: “Charlie always said about Tom Wolfe, as much as he’s accomplished in the literary world, all he really ever wanted to do was be accepted in Richmond.”

Today, Slack writes nonfiction books that win awards. He and King will join two other top-notch nonfiction writers at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery on Sunday for readings and signings. Also on tap is best-selling author Hampton Sides, whom King calls one of the leading nonfiction writers working today (“Jon Krakauer-level”), and Bill Gifford, a contributing editor for Outside Magazine.

Slack, a Boston native and former Harvard quarterback, worked first for the Chattanooga Times and then the Times-Dispatch. At the time, King also hired him to write pieces for his New York magazine, Bubba. “He was the best writer I had — really funny,” King says. “And he has an amazing ear for dialogue.”

That ear served Slack well on his first nonfiction book, “Blue Fairways: Three Months, Sixty Courses, No Mulligans,” for which he played public golf courses from Florida to Maine. “It was the perfect vehicle for him, he was out observing Americana and meeting people on the courses, hearing gunfire while playing in the Bronx,” King recalls. “But he’s not snooty. Charlie is a blue collar guy who loves the underdog.”

Slack also wrote books about Charles Goodyear (“Noble Obsession”), who discovered the vulcanization process for rubber, and Hetty Green (“Hetty: the Genius and Madness of America’s First Female Tycoon”). His latest work, “Liberty’s First Crisis: Adams, Jefferson, and the Misfits who saved Free Speech,” delves into a dangerous time in American history when the Sedition Act of 1798 was passed, making it a crime to criticize the government and its leaders.

“[It was] a fractious period — fistfights on the floor of Congress — not long after the passage of the Bill of Rights, when politicians got tired of taking heat in the press,” Slack says. “It was the first great test of whether we as a nation would live up to our own First Amendment. These are battles we are still fighting today, of course, and across the globe free speech is under assault. Though we like to think of our own era as unique, the questions we’re asking today — what speech goes too far? Is offending people’s beliefs the same thing as assaulting them? — are precisely the things they were fighting over in 1798.”

Richmond plays a pivotal role in the story. Slack says some of the key scenes, including a seminal court case, take place here, and one of the most controversial and tragic characters, James T. Callender, met his end by drowning in the James River and is buried on Church Hill.

Ward Tefft, owner of Chop Suey Books, says that after their success with the holiday Brew Ho Ho author party, he wanted to work again with King to bring celebrated authors to Hardywood, where the “wall between famous writer and adoring fan is broken down.”

King says that the brewery brings a certain vibe. “It’s exciting that we have a place where people come out and have fun,” he says. “The literary thing is more relaxed and people feel comfortable.”

Just don’t falsely shout “fire” in a crowded brewery. Free speech has its limits. S

The free book signing and party will be held Sunday, June 7, from 4-6 p.m. at Hardywood Park Craft Brewery.

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