“It’s horrible,” said Grosvenor. “I haven’t sobbed like this since my father died in 1982. I filled 80 contractor bags with ruined magazines, books, files and photographs.”
Among the flood’s victims: the family Bible and a first edition of Izaak Walton’s biography of John Donne, Sir Henry Wotton, Richard Hooker and George Herbert.
“It’s one of the first great works of biography in European history, published in 1670,” said Grosvenor.
Grosvenor, 69, is himself a mix of biography, history and publishing. His grandfather was Gilbert H. Grosvenor, the first full-time editor of National Geographic. His father, Melville Bell Grosvenor, was also NatGeo’s editor. (The “Bell” in his father’s name? It’s a nod to Gilbert H.’s father-in-law: Alexander Graham Bell.) The Grosvenor Metro station is named after the 100-acre farm his family once retreated to on weekends.
It was perhaps inevitable that Edwin would go into the family business. In 2007, he was among a group that bought American Heritage, a magazine founded in 1949 by the American Association for State and Local History.
“I’ve seen what publishing and telling good stories can do, the impact it can have,” he said.
As for the impact of water: When the rains came, Grosvenor was in a house in the Shenandoah Valley, seeing his 18-month-old grandson, Emmett, for the first time.
“I got a call from my neighbor saying, ‘You really should come immediately because there’s four feet of water against your back door,’ ” Grosvenor said.
The water breached the door, flooding the house and turning anything on the lower shelves of book cases into a pulpy stew.
“We publish two magazines: American Heritage and Invention and Technology,” Grosvenor said. “I lost my entire set of Invention and Technology since 1984. All of the American Heritage magazines after 2000 are gone.”
American Heritage once had a printed circulation of 350,000, so Grosvenor is sure he can assemble the missing magazines from eBay. The real punch in the gut are the personal books, including titles his father edited for National Geographic’s book division and interesting old tomes such as a three-volume life of Andrew Jackson and “Cleared for Strange Ports,” on the travels of Teddy Roosevelt’s family.
The current issue of American Heritage includes articles on the attacks of 9/11, including a look at Flight 93, by James Reston Jr. and Richard Whittle, and Karin Abarbanel’s essay on an earlier attack on New York: September of 1776, when George Washington watched the city burn during a British invasion.
The magazine is free online at americanheritage.com. Readers are encouraged to subscribe to help keep American Heritage afloat.
“The funny thing was, I sent out one email to subscribers and I’ve had, I think, 400 donations,” Grosvenor said. “It’s been gratifying. Frankly, you kind of get the feeling that people don’t care for history anymore.”
That notion — people don’t care for history anymore — is one that troubles Grosvenor.
“I feel as a nation, it’s like we’re developing amnesia or Alzheimer’s,” he said. “When you get Alzheimer’s, you don’t know who you are, you don’t know where you are and you don’t know where you’re going. That’s where we are. What is America? People don’t know anymore.”
Grosvenor said that when he went to Lafayette Square after last year’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations, he was heartbroken to see graffiti covering the statues of men who had fought on the American side in the Revolution, such as the Marquis de Lafayette and Tadeusz Kosciuszko.
“These are young men who were fighting for freedom, who were fighting for liberty,” he said. “Lafayette was 19 years old when he came here. Here’s this teenager giving up an aristocratic lifestyle, risking his life to come fight for freedom, and they spray-paint him.”
Grosvenor thinks how we view history seems to divide us more than unite us: “Now it feels like one side is simplistic and jingoistic and the other side is negative. History has become like a battleground for simplistic judgments about our past.”
I asked Grosvenor if the cosmos was delivering its own judgment about history by swamping his home and drowning the American Heritage archives.
“No,” he said. “I just think I’m the lowest house in the neighborhood.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.