I have no intention of discussing current politics on my blog which is supposed to be a break from reality for me and my readers (I hope), but the rhetoric and reality of this election is really depressing me; I’ve got to get out from under its weight in the only way I know how: by going back. We need a hero! And since today is the birthday of one (the real birthday, as opposed to last week’s more generic “Presidents’ Day”), let us focus on George Washington. Now remember, I am not an American historian so I have a rather romantic view of our first president, which suits my purpose of historical escapism. My glasses are not quite as rose-colored as those of Parson Weems and his fellow hagiographers of the nineteenth-century, but I still want to see the General and the President in vivid twentieth-century color, as an example of someone who was truthful, moderate, restrained and resigned, heroic yet humble, selfless yet self-conscious, never-seeking but always-serving, and predisposed more towards action than words. Here are some twentieth-century images, in color, which capture those qualities.
Grant Wood, Parson Weems’ Fable, 1939, Amon Carter Museum of American Art; (I do believe Washington was truthful, but the cherry tree story is still a fable created by Parson Weems–this is an amazing HISTORICAL painting). Below, the cherry tree story is integral to Washington’s depiction by Rosalind Thornycroft in Herbert and Eleanor Farjeon’s Heroes and Heroines (1933).
Washington from the 1910s through the 1970s: leaving Mount Vernon by Edwin Penfield, the popular General by Charles Schucker, the standard of civic duty and morality. New York Public Library Digital Gallery and Smithsonian Institution.
February 22nd, 2016 at 8:54 pm
I have to agree with you entirely on the usefulness, and also comfort, of history in difficult, even dark times. To me, it’s like standing back from a close-up on the present, to get a wider perspective, which then makes the former a little less oppressive. And you get to learn and think… History! much better than so many other forms of “escape” on offer these days!
February 22nd, 2016 at 9:16 pm
It’s a lifetime habit for me, Laura–and it’s never let me down.
February 23rd, 2016 at 8:02 am
because I am looking at the 1730’s and 1740’s in South Carolina, my study of history leaves me wrung out (also, not a historian)… Agree that we need a hero. thanks for the pictures!
February 25th, 2016 at 9:43 pm
I’m less interested in idolizing Washington partly because I spend far to much of my time reading Shaker history that idolizes them. I like exposing their flaws. Not because it makes them pitiful, but because they achieved so much even so, as did Washington. It’s good to know when my bad temper threatens to break out that George had the same problem.
On a related point, I was just reading a recent biography of William Marshall (c. 1146 – 1219), which spent much of its text explaining how a contemporary verse celebration of his life emphasized some parts of it while ignoring or downplaying others, notably his (sometimes) good relations with King John. So I got to read about how his heirs portrayed him favorably (which is not how it would be done today, of course, in format or values) compared to what really happened, at least insofar as historians of our day, with their own biases, can tell. It was neat.
February 25th, 2016 at 9:51 pm
Good evening, Brian. I like to idolize certain figures in American history and I’m glad that I’m not an American historian so I can! As for Marshall, I like Duby’s little book.
February 25th, 2016 at 9:54 pm
Sigh. You have a point, and I am sighing because sometimes I regret that I’ve read up on most historical figures I admired.