As I wrote yesterday, in his recent Inventing George Washington, Edward G. Lengel contrasted the two major biographies of Washington published in the mid-1900s, finding Freeman’s to be careful but dry and Flexner’s lively but tacitly fictionalized.
New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani recently criticized Lengel for such judgments:
Mr. Lengel has a reductive either-or mind-set when it comes to biographical treatments of Washington’s life, suggesting that on the one hand, there are dry, factual accounts, which lack “the glue of imagination and inspiration,” and, on the other, colorful, popular portraits by the likes of Parson [Mason] Weems, who created narratives filled with dubious anecdotes — like the famous cherry tree story and the Indian prophecy that Washington would never be killed by a bullet — which probably originated in popular oral legends, hearsay or “in Weems’s own imagination.”In addition to Ellis’s His Excellency (2004) on the first President, Kakutani also recommended Ron Chernow’s “prodigiously researched” Washington: A Life (2010). Her review suggests that both refute Lengel’s supposed claim that we have to choose between dry factual rigor and vivid portraiture.
However false Weems-like anecdotes might be, Mr. Lengel argues, they “lent to Washington a degree of vibrancy and three-dimensionality that he might otherwise have lost,” whereas more serious scholars, in his view, took “the fun out of Washington and transformed him into a plate of cold fish.” This is absurd: just as it’s irresponsible for a historian to rationalize fantasy-based portraits of a historical figure because they make the individual accessible to the masses, so is it myopic to insinuate that accuracy and compelling writing are somehow mutually exclusive — as absorbing works like Mr. [Joseph] Ellis’s books on the founding fathers have made very clear.
But how does Kakutani judge what biographies are accurate? She studied literature, not Revolutionary history, and worked as a reporter before becoming a regular reviewer for the Times. As I noted back here, Chernow is one of the authors who, following Flexner, wrote that Washington deliberately spread disinformation about his army having 1,800 barrels of gunpowder—which turns out to be one of those “dubious anecdotes.”
The Harvard historian Jill Lepore wrote in The New Yorker about Washington: A Life:
Chernow’s aim is to make of Washington something other than a “lifeless waxwork,” an “impossibly stiff and wooden figure, composed of too much marble to be quite human.” That has been the aim of every Washington biographer, and none of them have achieved it. . . .In contrast, that same magazine’s reporter Hendrick Hertzberg recommended Washington: A Life as “as history, as epic, and, not least, as entertainment.” There seems to be a divide between biographies that academic historians trust, often full of doubt and elision, and those that journalists admire.
Chernow…thinks a whole lot differently about feeling and understanding than Washington did—and that, right there, is the problem. “Washington: A Life” is a prodigious biography, expertly narrated and full of remarkable detail. But it is a psychological profile of a man who lived and died long before our psychological age, a romantic portrait of a man who was not a Romantic…
Joseph Ellis is, like Lepore, a full-time academic historian of stature. Nonetheless, his methodology is much like Flexner’s and Chernow’s: assembling vivid psychological portraits and compelling narratives by starting from primary sources and adding a lot of sympathetic imagination. In Past Imperfect fellow historian Peter Charles Hoffer suggested that Ellis habitually goes too far in describing what the founders thought and felt, going “places where only a conjurer might safely peer.”
Still, the results of that method are delightful. It’s no surprise that many of the most popular Revolutionary histories and biographies of recent years come from people who trained as journalists: Chernow, Walter Isaacson, David McCullough, and so on. Like academic historians, those authors dig into the available sources, primary and secondary and often documentary. However, their training is to come back with the story, not just the facts and questions. They strive to make the people of the past come to life—as we recognize it today. In contrast, many historians want to remind us of the difficulties, perhaps the impossibilities, of doing just that.
I think Lengel is more accurate than Kakutani can recognize. There is a trade-off between a completely accurate portrait and a completely compelling one. We prefer to relate to the people we read about, even if those people should be really hard for us twenty-first-century readers to relate to. We prefer well-structured narratives with strong protagonists despite how—and probably precisely because—real lives don’t work like that.
TOMORROW: What Washington really did about the gunpowder shortage.