In the last few days I quoted from the two major George Washington biographies of the mid-1900s: the multi-volume sets by Douglas Southall Freeman (and assistants) and by James T. Flexner.
Edward G. Lengel discusses both of them in a late chapter of his recent Inventing George Washington. About the first, Lengel says:
In bringing out the real man, Freeman refused to step beyond his scholarly standards or employ literary shortcuts in favor of evocative characterization. Critics therefore praised his work as a piece of scholarship but complained about the “plodding…portentous” narrative overladen with “often inconsequential detail [so that] even the student nods.” . . .In contrast, Lengel writes:
Freeman’s George Washington remains probably the most scholarly book ever written on its subject, but it was the kind of book that people bought and never read.
Flexner began with basic facts. . . . Where Freeman and other “scientific” historians had been content to rely on these to construct an authentic if somewhat humdrum series of events, Flexner applied his imagination to elucidate on these facts and create vivid scenes and flesh-and-blood characters. Thus, starting from a document describing the bare-bones facts of a certain event, Flexner added the facial expressions, bodily gestures, figures of speech, and private thoughts of Washington and all the other dramatis personae, setting it against the backdrop of a vividly described albeit largely imaginary physical scene. In essence, he wrote a historical novel based on fact, but without admitting it as such.One of the crucial ingredients of a novel is an active protagonist. As Freeman told the story of the gunpowder crisis of early August 1775, he didn’t make Gen. Washington into such a hero. Instead, he wrote more vaguely about “efforts to keep secret the shortage of powder,” and how “Royal officers were being misled” on other matters. Even as he argued that the British never learning of the shortage was some sort of triumph for the Americans, Freeman avoided attributing particular actions to Washington or any other individual unless documents showed their role.
Flexner, on the other hand, presented Washington as the protagonist of the episode, taking action and directing others:
As a first step, he leaked word to the enemy (which their intelligence eagerly gobbled up) that he had eighteen hundred barrels of powder. He started a rumor in his own camp that he was almost embarrassed at having so much…Flexner had no documentation for those statements, only a stretched interpretation of what Freeman had written and a strong desire to make Washington an active hero. That picture of Washington and Flexner’s ability to describe scenes and characters made his book quite successful, considering its bulk.
Flexner presented his biography as well-researched non-fiction, and most readers accepted that. Other authors therefore have repeated the tale about 1,800 barrels of powder based on his authority. In George Washington, Spymaster, for example, Thomas B. Allen wrote that the general “sent agents into British-occupied Boston with the story” because that’s what a spymaster, or the hero of a satisfying novel, would do.
TOMORROW: Kakutani’s judgment.