In Search of America: Transatlantic Essays, 1951-1990

By Marcus Cunliffe | Go to book overview

MONUMENTAL WASHINGTON

I cannot remember just how or when George Washington began to intrigue me. A main stimulus, certainly, was the invitation to write a short biographical account of his place in American life. The resultant book, George Washington: Man and Monument ( 1958), tried to explain a person whose symbolic importance, the "monumental" qualities ascribed to him even in his own lifetime, served to obscure the actual character and career of the "man." Although this was a principal emphasis of my book, I pointed out that balancing the "real" and the legendary has been a problem for Washington biographers of every stripe. In fact the very first of these chroniclers ran into difficulties: see my introduction to Mason Locke Weems Life of Washington ( John Harvard Library, 1962). The aim of "Parson" Weems, apart from making some money out of the project for himself and his publisher, was to humanize Washington by devising homely anecdotes, especially of the hero's childhood, in order to offset the habit of dwelling only upon Washington's supposedly superhuman virtues. The irony is that subsequent generations accused Weems of contributing to the idealization that -- at least in part -- he was endeavoring to modify.

Here in Part II, then, are various approaches to Washington the monumental. Two essays discuss biographies, by John Marshall and by Woodrow Wilson, produced at the beginning of the nineteenth century and at the century's end. Neither treatment, I argue, was altogether satisfactory, though the authors were Americans of exceptional caliber. The reasons for their relative failure include uneasiness over the right tone to adopt in avoiding deification on the one hand and disparagement (or what in the 1920s became known as "debunking") on the other.

The point is reinforced in this section's two intermediate pieces. One of

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