J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, February 18, 2011

The Neverending Supply of Washington Myths

I think Inventing George Washington: America’s Founder, in Myth and Memory, by Edward G. Lengel, will appeal to Boston 1775 readers. In fact, this blog may have even had a small part in the genesis of this book.

Lengel is the current editor in chief of the big George Washington Papers project at the University of Virginia. That puts him at the vortex of all the preserved documentary minutiae in Washington’s life, and in one of the clearinghouses for questions and legends about the man.

In 2005 Lengel published a review of Washington’s military career, titled General George Washington: A Military Life. I liked the book, but questioned a detail of the general’s taking command in Cambridge. Did he really, as the book repeated, read a psalm to the assembled troops?

As I discussed in this 2007 posting, Lengel’s source for that story was actually highly skeptical of it. To be exact, he called it an “alleged recollection,” and expressed doubt that the troops were ever assembled that way. I then traced the story back to 1846, earlier than I ever expected but still a long stretch from 1775.

Lengel came to Boston to speak about his next book, This Glorious Struggle: George Washington’s Revolutionary War Letters. We met at the Massachusetts Historical Society, and he frankly admitted that he hadn’t been as skeptical about that story as he would have liked. We also talked about the prospect for a whole book on such Washington myths.

I agreed there was plenty of material. Indeed, so many individuals and families told stories about personal encounters with Washington, with no documentary support, that I sometimes felt our nation hungered for a royal laying on of hands.

I had even considered assembling a series of essays debunking different Washington myths, the way I do here on the blog. The problem, I thought, was that, even with my delightful style and wit, the result would soon be tedious. Almost every essay would have the same structure: tell the story, ask questions about its internal logic, look at the supporting documents if any, look at real contemporaneous documents, trace how the story kept getting better, take a swipe at the storyteller’s credibility, marvel at how some people nonetheless believed the tale—and on to the next! After three or four of those, readers would catch on to the pattern. Boston 1775 readers would be way ahead of the curve to begin with.

TOMORROW: So how did Lengel tackle that challenge?


Josiah Coffey said...

In an aside, I just finished reading Ron Chernow's new bio of Washington and was wondering if you've had a chance to read it/what you thought of it and how it compares to others?

J. L. Bell said...

I’ve read only parts of Chernow’s biography. It struck me as a good example of its type, trying to glean a psychological portrait of Washington from the scanty records of his personal life. The pitfall of that approach is that it’s easy to project the sensibility of our time onto Washington, who in many ways viewed the world and his role in it quite differently.