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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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Freeman, Flexner, and Fiction

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.” . . .

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.
In contrast, Lengel writes:
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.


DAG said...

Mr. Bell,

Quite interesting to read an Historians take on Mr. Flexner's books. Having read one of his works on Washington I had the same feeling about it's accuracy. I have not had the opportunity to read Mr. Freeman's work.

I have always enjoyed an author who can put the facts together with an interesting narrative,yet keeping their own imagination in check.

President Washington surely deserves such a work.

HemlockBob said...

Just playing devil's advocate: Is it possible there's no documentation or official record by design? Trust was hard to come by at that time, even among men on your own side in some cases. So maybe rumors were planted intentionally, knowing they'd reach the British and even if the British were able to obtain accurate reports, at the very least there'd be confusion. This is just a thought from an amateur brain.

J. L. Bell said...

A general trying to plant a false rumor would indeed try to minimize any paper trail or other evidence that would show what he’s doing.

In this case, however, we not only don’t have evidence that Washington ordered a disinformation campaign about the gunpowder, we also don’t have any evidence of the British command receiving such disinformation about the gunpowder. We do have plenty of evidence of rumors of all sorts zipping around on both sides well before Washington arrived in Massachusetts.

In that situation, it seems presumptuous of historians to conclude that there was a disinformation campaign at all, rather than the normal “fog of war.”

John L. Smith said...

Hemlock Bob - you touched on a very obvious detail to George Washington. Maybe part of the reason he ordered Martha to burn almost all personal correspondence between them during the war? No paper trail that would outline his thoughts, doubts and maybe seeming imperfections? John Adams, on the other hand, so afraid he'd be overshadowed in history by "superstars" of the times as Franklin and Jefferson, kept everything. He wanted a paper trail!

J. L. Bell said...

Even as early as 1770, John Adams chides himself in his diary for writing about trivial things that would be of no interest to history. He clearly hoped to be remembered and studied. But it’s precisely because the Adamses wrote about everyday events and private emotions that we know so much about them, and admire John as a person rather than just a statesman.

Notably, two of the very few personal letters from George to Martha Washington that have survived come from when he was setting off to Cambridge in June 1775. Martha apparently set those aside as special, and then they got left in a desk drawer when she burned the rest.

I doubt George would have written much to Martha about military strategy in the following months—he seems to have tried to shield her from both worry and public business. But those lost letters would probably have shed more light on his emotional state. His letters to relatives and close friends in Virginia are much more candid about the New England army than his public pronouncements.