Inventing George Washington, Edward G. Lengel

Books about perceptions of history and historical figures have abounded in my life lately, and I love them. Forever. Heather recently reviewed a book about how the impact of the Moses story on American culture, which I am planning to read soon; I got this book about how the treatment of various events in American history has changed in history textbooks over the years; and then there was Contested Will, which dealt with the history of the Shakespeare authorship controversy.

In the few months when I thought I was going to write a senior thesis in college, it was going to be on perceptions of Oscar Wilde (as a writer and as a dude) between 1890 and 1930. That would have been really interesting, no? And would have provided me with many opportunities to love on Robert Ross, one of my favorite people in the world. But then it proved that I preferred to spend my senior year of college inventing this book blog, watching Buffy and Angel with my sisters, and attending football games. In retrospect, very very solid decision. Still, if I had gone the other way, I think that would have been a fun project for me.

Point being, I like books about how, as time goes by, people tell different stories and use different language and play up different aspects of historical figures and events. Not only do I learn interesting things about forgers trying to remake enigmatic figures in the desired image of the time, but also I am reminded once again that individual reality is constructed by the stories told by the community. You just can’t be reminded of this often enough.

Inventing George Washington: America’s Founder in Myth and Memory is, as you may be now have surmised, an overview of perceptions of Washington over the years. Lengel begins by explaining why it’s so difficult to arrive at an accurate picture of George Washington: his circumspection in public circles, the heirs who cut up his letters and handed them out like candy, the popular biographies with their legends that America so, so wanted to believe. Over the course of the book, Lengel covers biographies of Washington and their sources and credibility, forged Washington papers, history textbooks, oral traditions connected to towns where Washington supposedly slept or fought or ate porridge, and depictions of Washington in fictional plays and films.

Notice the casual mention of Washington in plays and films. The last chapter is about how Lengel’s on the set of this George Washington flick, oh, and the producers want it to be authentic, and that’s what Lengel’s for; and then there are these reenactors on set who are, like, hell-bent on making everything actually properly authentic to the last detail. So poor Lengel is caught in the middle. That is funny. It is so, so, so funny. You should read that chapter even if you don’t read any of the rest of this book. Reenactors are funny. (Don’t tell my uncle I said that. Apparently he reenacts things for a hobby.)

Of particular interest to me was the way that Lengel demonstrates how myths and half-truths about Washington have been used to score political points. Did you know about the widely-circulated story that Washington had religious visions predicting the Civil War? And that advocates of legalizing marijuana have suggested that Washington grew and regularly smoked pot? And anti-gun control groups frequently attribute to Washington a lengthy statement in favor of firearms that’s completely made up?

Apparently Edward Lengel has written a proper biography of George Washington. Be aware that Inventing George Washington is not that. If you go into this book expecting to learn where George Washington actually slept and what his precise religious beliefs were, you may be disappointed. I didn’t go in expecting that, but there were times when I felt like I was waiting for a punchline: after pages and pages of untrue things people have believed about Washington’s religious practice, you start thinking you’re going to hear what he really believed. But for that, I guess I refer me to Lengel’s proper Washington biography.

In sum: Good, as long as you know going in it won’t be a biography.

I received a review copy of Inventing George Washington from Harper. Inventing George Washington is due out 18 January 2011.

  • I just finished reading this yesterday! And yeah, I did kind of want more of what Washington actually did believe, especially when Lengel kept doing that thing where he’d tell you something false about Washington and then say “that’s false and here’s why,” but then he didn’t go on to say “here’s what actually happened.” It was more like “there’s no evidence for that (or anything else),” which makes me wonder how the heck he wrote a proper biography if there’s really so little evidence like he says.

    Poor Martha got the worst end of the deal, I think! I mean, yeah, Washington’s this giant block of Mighty Awesome American Steel, but Martha’s the jealous old hag that everyone hated and Washington despised, and she smelled like old potatoes and whatever. After reading this book I really want something on Martha, now!

    (I may plagiarise myself in my review, btw. This is why I shouldn’t comment on stuff until AFTER I write my own review; I end up repeating everything! Oh well, it’s already here. Might as well post it!)

    • I know, I wondered that too! But I expect his biography was very painstaking about sorting out fact from fiction. I hope it talks nicely about Martha. I felt sorry for her.

      Weirdly, I had it in my head that George Washington had cheated on Martha with her sister. I cannot now imagine where this idea came from.

  • Very interesting! I might have to pick this one up.

    • You should! I’ll be interested to see the similarities between this and the book about Moses — they both are sort of about the way Americans conceive of themselves, I think.

  • This sounds fascinating! I am intrigued by the many ways cultural values, popular mythology, and the zeitgeist of an era shape the “facts” recorded about history. This sounds like a book I’d like to read.

    • That is very well put, Stephanie. I wish I had said it that neatly in my review. I am intrigued by that too.

  • I was recently writing a review in which I mused that sometimes the qualities and exploits of mythological heroes and even some very famous people become morphed within the consciousness of the people who repeatedly tell their stories in order to immortalize them. Is it just an ability to create good PR for themselves, or do these attributes just sort of take on a life of their own? I am still thinking about this, and it sounds like this book would be really interesting to me for the points it makes on the subject. Great review on this one. I love how there sometimes seems to be a sort of serendipity about the things I am thinking about and the things that appear on your blog!

    • That is very true — particularly as more and more time goes by and the mythologized people begin to assume godlike stature. I think in some cases, people do popularize a certain image of themselves (like Mark Twain, or Oscar Wilde before his trials), and sometimes they are so irresistible in some aspect (like George Washington as a military leader and founding father; or Oscar Wilde as a wicked sinner after his trials) that stories spring up around them.

  • A fascinating subject–I’m sure it would have been an interesting thesis, but agree that the way you spent your time was a good choice, too! I’ll take to heart the warning that I won’t find out what he actually believed from this book. (Why oh why is so much of my life comprised of finding negative proof?) There’s an xkcd comic I linked to at my place today that kind of relates to this.

    • But at least it’s easier to find negative proof in these days of the interwebz and snopes.com. It must have been much more difficult in, say, the 1980s.

      • You are trying to poke me, but it won’t work. I finished my dissertation in the early 80s but all the research was from old newspapers and manuscripts from the Library of Congress and the Folger. That stuff is still not on the interwebs–which was part of the point. Even microfilm disintegrates, but a bound dissertation will live on a shelf forever (unread).

  • Amy

    I have a George Washington book on my list but I don’t remember if it’s this one or not. I hope it is though because this sounds like the kind of book I like when it comes to biography-like reads.

    Your last year of college sounds like my final semester of grad school. I gave in and took the class with the dean instead of writing the thesis and spent my time sleeping late and pondering a real job. Ahh, bliss. 🙂

    • I actually am not wild about real biographies. There have been a few I really enjoyed, but I have to be desperately interested in someone to want to read a whole biography of their whole life. A book like this, with a slightly different focus, can be a lot more interesting to me.

      Hurrah for laziness in higher education!

  • Oh I adore books that are all about changing perceptions. Have you read The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes? Or her book Two Lives on Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas? I’m ashamed to say I know nothing whatsoever about George Washington, so this book probably isn’t the place to start, but it’s the kind of thing I enjoy.

    • No! I want to read The Silent Woman for sure and maybe Two Lives but maybe not because I do not care much about Gertrude Stein. But The Silent Woman, definitely. Thank you for the recommendation. The book blogosphere never fails me. 😀

      I’d say that knowing many things about George Washington isn’t necessary to read this book, only it’s difficult for me to judge. I don’t know much about George Washington, but I do have a general framework of information in my brain, based on scraps of recalled lessons from history classes over years of school. I feel like it wouldn’t make that much of a difference, though, so I say, read it!

  • Mumsy

    I like books about myth-making, but I really like knowing the reality behind the myth; I’m not sure this one is for me. For instance, Contested Will would have left me profoundly unsatisfied if the author hadn’t finished it up with his theory about Shakespeare – and his evidence for it.

    • Contested Will would have left me a little bit unsatisfied without the last chapter. I thought as far as that went, Shapiro showed so plainly the lack of evidence for any other candidate, that I never felt like my belief in Shakespeare as Shakespeare was wavering. I liked the section at the end, but I didn’t need it.

  • This sounds really fun, but it does sound like it needs to be read alongside his biography!

    • Except I am not sure I want to know a whole biography’s worth of information about George Washington. :p This one’s fun as a standalone, as long as you don’t mind being left without some of the truth, after the lies have been exposed as such.

  • Well, I must admit that I felt the book quite pointless, because the author has just confronted what many people have said, believed, and written about George Washington, without telling us much about the founder on his own, things that we can get some inspiration from. What’s the point of merely getting to the bottom of something written by someone, if it doesn’t significantly bring forward any useful or at least enjoyable knowledge, inspiration, ideal, motivation?

    • Aw, too bad this wasn’t good for you. I enjoy the feeling of self-righteousness that comes with knowing other people (like the anti-gun control lobby!) are wrong, so I enjoyed learning about all the misconceptions about George Washington.

  • Eva

    This sounds like fun!

    Also, one of my very favourite teachers in high school was a Civil War reenactor! Ever since then, I can’t quite bring myself to smirk at them, because he was such an awesome person.

    • My uncle’s really awesome too! Only there is part of me that nevertheless think it’s a bit silly.

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