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.