It’s a quirky little book, Edward Lengel’s “Inventing George Washington: America’s Founder in Myth and Memory”, published in 2011. Lengel certainly appears to have the qualifications to author this book. He’s the Editor in Chief of the Papers of George Washington and a professor at the University of Virginia. And he’s written a quirky little book.
The point of the book is clear: don’t believe everything you read. Lengel examines (well, that’s probably too strong a word; he “mentions”) all sorts of books written about the first president from the early 19th century to the present that contain references that are either incorrect (some obviously so) or unsubstantiated. He also demonstrates how much first hand material is available about Washington, and how many books (including several detailed multi-, multi-volume scholarly works) have been written about him, purchased and (sometimes) even read.
But, to my mind, he winds up putting Washington into the same category as Jesus and Columbus, two other individuals about whom an extraordinary amount has been researched and written, and whose actual life and personnae in fact (faith aside) remain a mystery. How did Jesus really spend his time; what were his goals in life? Was Columbus Italian, or Spanish, or Jewish, or Portuguese or perhaps Greek? We just don’t really know. That is, as a collective, we don’t know – individual scholars of Columbus and of Jesus have reached what they believe are clear conclusions to these questions; most just don’t agree with the scholar next door.
So, add Washington to this august list. He didn’t chop down a cherry tree and tell his father he couldn’t tell a lie. He didn’t kneel in the snow in prayer at Valley Forge. He didn’t meet with Betsy Ross and ask her to start making flags. He didn’t throw a silver dollar across any body of water. And he certainly didn’t sleep in all those places where he is claimed to have snoozed.
But Lengel, whose book is written in a half-serious, half-tongue in cheek tone, does do a bit more than list all of the old wives tales about the Father of Our Country. He tries to show (and I think largely succeeds) that the representations of Washington and his character, and the anecdotes that have been created to illustrate his life, are manifestations not only of the idiosyncracies of the authors, but a reflection of the times. There were times when there was a need for Washington to be put on a pedestal. There were times when he needed to be knocked down to size. There were times when he needed to be shown to have been the recipient of supernatural guidance. There were times when he needed to be ignored, or when previous versions of Washington had become outdated, and new ones not yet seen the light. And there were times when Washington needed new interpretations, and in some of those times where writings about Washington served the purpose of helping to form the country’s various pictures of itself, and times when writings about Washington served the ultimate purpose of filling the pocketbooks of the authors and their friends.
With all of this, however, the book is ultimately not quite satisfying. For one thing, while many of the episodes written of Washington’s life cannot be proved, some cannot be disproved. Most can be traced back to a first source – usually a particular book, or a speech where a particular speech or letter was misinterpreted. But it is often impossible to tell where the creator of the illustration got his (almost always, “his”) inspiration. Often, from “well known sources”, or “old oral family histories” and the like.
So, while you learn from the book that there are oft-repeated facets of Washington’s life that cannot be taken for granted, you certainly don’t wind up with a picture of Washington as a result of reading it. So be it – that was not, I guess the purpose of the book. There are others to go to (some which the author highly recommends, often with a condition or two) for that.
But it does get you thinking. What do we know about anything anyway? We know, for example, that “Argo” is not an accurate picture of the rescue of would-be hostages in Iran. We know that “American Hustle” is a farce, not a history of the Abscam scandal and arrests. Same with “The Wolf of Wall Street”. And, as I have said before, look at all of the Oliver Stone movies. And virtually any other historically based film you have ever seen.
And what’s true for film is true for theater (I don’t need to name examples here) and, yes even books by scholars of good repute. And don’t leave out journalism – what by the way, really did happen in Benghazi?
Last night, I watched a couple of hours of Book TV on C-Span. The first program was a filmed book talk by Roger Stone, writer of the newly released book on the Kennedy assassination, “The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ”. Yes, Roger Stone, Republican political consultant who is said to have a drawing of Richard Nixon tattooed on his back, not only believes that Lyndon Johnson was behind the Kennedy assassination (as well as the Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations and others – more books to come, it will be a series). And he believes that everyone in the Kennedy family knew it, but couldn’t say. And that somehow it was connected not only to Johnson’s ambition (and fear of being dumped by JFK as the second term vice president), but to Lady Bird’s investing and to the growth of Halliburton and LTV and other denizens of the good old military-industrial complex who were begging for a war in Vietnam to serve their financial interests. And, what’s worse, Stone, as you listen to him, is quite believable, credible.
Now I don’t think that it is very likely that LBJ was America’s biggest political criminal of the 20th century, but that doesn’t believe that I think that the there might not have been more to all of this than what the Warren Commission (shielded among other things from the files of the CIA) concluded. Look at all the books that have been written outlining competing conspiracy theories. It was the Russians. No, it was the Cubans. No, it was the Mafia. You are all wrong, it was LBJ.
And, as time goes on, which of these theories will be contained in the main-line teaching of American history? We have no idea what they will be, or whether they will change from time to time, to meet the needs of the times, as Lengel suggests with regard to Washington.
Following Stone’s talk, I listened to a very bright English-Caribbean journalist, Gary Younge, who has written a book about Martin Luther King’s 1963 speech at the March on Washington in front of the Lincoln Memorial, “The Speech: The Story Behind Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Dream”. While not as controversial, to be sure, as Roger Stone, Younge brings up some interesting points which reflect some of the same considerations that Lengel maintains.
First and perhaps most important is that Martin Luther King in 1963, before his speech, as well as after his speech but before his death, was viewed in the country very differently than he is viewed today. I think he said that only 20% of Americans who were polled had a favorable impression of King. And that suspicion of King not only was spread through the southern white population, but throughout all segments of the white population and a substantial portion of the black population (many of whom were much more sympathetic to Malcolm X).
Martin Luther King ruffled many feathers, not only in his talking about civil rights, but in his talking about capitalism in general, and about capitalistic wars, such as the Vietnam War in particular. Yet today, streets in every major city are named for him, the new (ugly, ugly, ugly) monument on the Tidal Basin in Washington honors him, the federal and state governments (and schools) shut down on his birthday. Martin Luther King has been transformed in the same way that George Washington was, initially, transformed: “The Father of the Civil Rights Movement”/”The Father of Our Country”. Who knows what future years will do to his reputation or to his history?
Inventing George Washington. Inventing Jesus. Inventing Columbus. Inventing the Kennedy Assassination (Inventing LBJ, perhaps). Inventing Martin Luther King.
What is history, anyway?