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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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Building and Rebuilding Washington

Edward G. Lengel’s Inventing George Washington is a quick, readable study of how Americans have remembered the “Father of Our Country” over the decades. Many legends arose despite the lack of documents, or even despite the existence of contradictory documents, reflecting the interests of different periods and people.

In some cases, such as the cherry tree and phrase “Washington slept here,” the fact that those legends are legends is also part of our culture. Other legends, such as the general praying in the snow at Valley Forge, serve as articles of faith for some Americans.

Because there are so many Washington myths, and debunking takes far more space than retelling, this book could have filled a thousand pages. So Lengel’s first step was to narrow down the field to those stories that have had the most readers and the widest influence. This book doesn’t quibble over every little doorstep where Washington may have walked.

Lengel’s second step was to organize his material along two tracks. One is chronological. The first two chapters discuss some stories about Washington in his lifetime and for the fifty years thereafter, when authors like Mason Weems and George Lippard (who never claimed to write nonfiction) confirmed that the first President’s name could sell books.

The second track is thematic. In the late nineteenth century a combination of nostalgia, nationalism, and post-Romantic interest in “the real man” produced a flowering of Washington myths. Lengel offers separate chapters on “Washington’s Loves”; “Washington’s Visions,” or religious experiences; and “Washington Slept Here,” on the growth of historical tourism. Along the way come the claims from the families of Lydia Darragh, Betsy Ross, and John Honeyman. Most of these stories have few sources, but folks who wanted Washington to be a certain sort of person filled in the holes.

Not every story turned out to be a myth, though. The “Sally Fairfax letter” which published in the late 1800s showed young Washington as a flirt—a flirt with another man’s wife when he was about to marry Martha. That fit into the period’s notions of Washington as a romantic hero, though it also ran up against proper Victorian mores. The letter vanished into an individual’s collection, leading many people to denounce it as a forgery or myth. But then it resurfaced in 1958, looking quite convincing.

Inventing George Washington isn’t just about debunking myths. It’s also about the way Americans have preserved the President’s memory, including preserving Mount Vernon, publishing his papers, and erecting monuments that look nothing like him.

Chapters 6 and 7 discuss the historiography of the 20th century, including the “debunking” of the 1920s writers William E. Woodward and Rupert Hughes; the government’s Depression-era project to publish all the general’s writing (as opposed to the current project, publishing letters he both sent and received); and the post-WW2 biographies from Douglas Southall Freeman (exhaustive, dry) and James Thomas Flexner (lively and, well, imaginative about what people were thinking and feeling).

The final chapter is a bit of a gumbo, with ghost stories, television movies, and the latest favorites about Washington—politicians’ misquotes, the hemp lobby’s claims. But Lengel pulls it together with his personal experience of acting as historical advisor on a movie about Washington for Mount Vernon. He says the reenactors involved called the result “FUBAR,” which it might have been, but I bet they also said it was “farby.”

In all, Inventing George Washington is a brief, thought-provoking read. It’s a reminder that debunking and revamping historical stories has been a constant phenomenon, not something that began in our lifetimes. It shows how each period has, consciously or unconsciously, created a George Washington that serves its cultural needs and reflects its contemporary concerns.

The book is enough to make one wonder what our time is unconsciously doing to the man and his memory.

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