Washington novels, plays, books

"It is a dangerous business to involve Washington in the machinery of a work of fiction, for he is in no way a fit subject for satire," John R. Thompson warned William Thackeray in 1858. Americans have got so used to the remote Washington that to see an intimate literary portrayal irritates them. Putting so high a figure in a trivial situation smacks of blasphemy. It is as if a Japanese were asked to portray the Mikado in a sequel to the Gilbert and Sullivan opera (which, incidentally, caused an international incident).

To date, none of the novels in which Washington figures has fully satisfied the public. A gallant, aloof, and unreal first president steps gingerly through the pages of novels by Fenimore Cooper, Maria Sedgwick, John Neal, and John Esten Cooke. They were all writing in the manner of Sir Walter Scott, who set the pattern for the nineteenth century historical romance; but they lacked the master's touch.

Playwrights have found it hard to put the Father of their Country on the boards. Samuel Shirk studied Washington dramas, and summarized their mediocrity. Of the 75 plays and pageants on Washington written since 1875, none was a real success. Only five-- August Thomas' Colonel George of Mount Vernon, Percy MacKaye's Wakefield, Maxwell Anderson Valley Forge, Sidney Kingsley's The Patriots, and Paul Green Faith of our Fathers-have been even moderately well received. The quiet integration of Washington's personality and the scarcity of startling dramatic situations work against portraying him convincingly.

Washington's reputation has of course declined in some periods. When the Jeffersonians were forming the party that swamped the Federalists, the President was one of their primary targets. Freneau, Bache, Madison, and many others attacked him; the Jay Treaty of 1795 brought strong protests. Another low point occurred after the Civil War. Lincoln emerged after his martyrdom as the national symbol of unity and greatness. The South found a new idol in the defeated yet untarnished Lee. Washington was temporarily discarded. The most serious attack came in the 1920's, when smartness and light took over. William E. Woodward's George Washington: The Image and the Man (1926) was the debunker's major sally, portraying a vain, ordinary, and undemocratic man, "almost as impersonal at the top of the government as a statue on top of a monument would have been." Strange that Woodward, aware of this haughty impersonality, should launch a pea-shooter attack against a marble man.

His ammunition did not penetrate. Cal Coolidge, whose monosyllabic granite-block answers made him something of a folk hero in his own right, disposed of the debunkers in a few words. When asked if they could destroy George Washington, he looked out of the White House window. "Washington's Monument is still there," he said.

Washington's aloofness preserves his reputation, but it also minimizes his warm-blooded, human side. There was fire and venom and drama enough in the real Washington. Think of Washington at Newburgh in 1783 when fronted by the impetuous document of his officers who felt mistreated by the Continental Congress. "Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray, but almost blind in the service of my country," he said. Not a man felt, after the simple statement, that he should complain.

Recall the directions Washington's step-grandson gave a visitor at Mount Vernon. "You will meet with an old gentleman riding alone, in plain drab clothes, a broad-brimmed white hat, a hickory switch in his hand, and carrying an umbrella with a long staff, which is attached to his saddle bow. That is General Washington."

Legends are the slowly perfected fruit from a shoot of imagination grafted onto a tree of fact; a blur and blend of what was and what should have been. Some of Washington's can be attributed to specific sources. We know that Parson Weems invented the cherry tree story, and the one about a Quaker named Potts finding Washington praying fervently in the snow-covered woods near Valley Forge. But historical research (which proved that Weems first used the Valley Forge prayer story in the Federalist for March 12, 1804) cannot kill the image. The praying Washington remains fixed in the stone of the New York Sub-Treasury Building and indelible in millions of postage stamps. All the scholars put together cannot erase the prayer legend.

To no single source can be attributed the notions that Washington, like Saul of Old, stood head and shoulders above most of his countrymen (actually he was shorter than Thomas Jefferson, whom we seldom think of as tall); that he was a man apart, with no real friends, and too heavy a burden to smile; that he concealed a deep unrequited passion for a haughty colonial beauty; that he carved his initials on Natural Bridge and a score of other landmarks; or that he slept in almost every house of eighteenth century America.

More elaborate are stories of Washington's miraculous escapes from danger. One has an Indian chief turning to his men during the Braddock rout and saying, "Mark yon tall and daring warrior? He is not of the red coat tribe. He hath an Indian's wisdom and his warriors fight as we do--himself alone is exposed. Quick, let your aim be certain, and he will die!" But no Indian bullet can find him. "It is in vain," concludes the chief. "The Great Spirit protects that man and guides his life." What miracle story of medieval times could be more marvelous?

Some legends flatly insist that Washington was protected by the gods. His mother is said to have had a prophetic dream in which young George saved the house (symbolically the Republic) from destruction by flames. Like other favorites of the gods, Washington allegedly had a sword with special properties. Samuel Woodworth asserted in The Champion of Freedom ( 1816) that this blade would bring forth a message from beyond the grave, that in times of crises it would "flash and brandish itself, arousing the living characters to action." Just as King Arthur is supposed to turn up to announce the millennium, just as Charlemagne is scheduled to reappear when his great white beard thrice encircles the stone table before him in Untersburg, so Washington is expected to make a return engagement in order to fulfill legendary requirements.

In all these tales Washington epitomizes the traits of which young America was fondest: virtue, idealism, and piety. His flaws seem pale when held up against this central proposition; he was willing to stake his life and fortune on his high principles, to take up without question a task others could not perform. This is the basis of his real fame and "second fictional life." The South was particularly proud of this Virginia aristocrat, who became the model for the ante-bellum planter class. "How much more delightful to an undebauched mind," Washington wrote to Arthur Young in 1788, "is the task of making improvements on the earth than all the vain glories which can be acquired from ravaging it." Even the Republicans, out of sympathy with Federalist policies, were in accord with Washington's agrarian sympathies. Thomas Jefferson, so unlike Washington in many ways, nevertheless appreciated his true stature. "Washington's justice was the most inflexible I have ever known, no motives of interest or consanguinity, of friendship or hatred, being able to bias his decision," Jefferson wrote to Dr. Walter Jones on January 2, 1814. "He was indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man."

Robert E. Lee grew up under Washington's shadow, and took his life as a model for his own. When he joined the Confederate forces he must have recalled that Washington too had led a revolutionary force against established authority. The WashingtonFranklin Roosevelt parallel is also worth noting at this point. Not since the Virginia dynasty had there been a president who was so much a country squire as Roosevelt; Washington was the model squire. Like the first president, Roosevelt was an aristocrat who
loved tradition, attracted subordinates easily, and exhibited an Appalachian strength in adversity.

But we should not forget that Washington's cult flourished most during those years when Queen Victoria sat on the British throne and Britannia ruled taste as well as the waves. Washington made a most admirable Victorian hero. He was a "code man," proper, pure, and personable; a man of property and substance; a man who would have appreciated Tennyson's poems, Galsworthy's novels, and Rogers' figurines. This is not to say he was a prig or a kill-joy. In him there burned a mad hell which, on the few occasions when it was freed, seared the souls of those who stood in its path. He was the General who wanted "news on the spur of speed, for I am all impatience," and who had no sympathy with his routed troops when they ran "like the wild bears of the mountains." No one could have been more gallant with the ladies when circumstances permitted. Once he danced for three hours without a pause. When it came to Madeira wine, he was an acknowledged epicure. His stories about jackasses were decidedly Rabelaisian. There was hotter blood in Washington's veins than this century dreams of. His real strength lay in his controlled gentleness. He played his part as if he knew exactly what the fifth act would be like.

Instead of revering the Washington of Madeira, clay pipes, thundering oaths, and jackass jokes, we admire the one Brumidi painted on the dome of the National Capitol in Washington. "The Apotheosis of Washington" depicts the distant demigod, with Freedom at his right and Victory at his left. Here is a Washington for the ages, a leader who symbolizes the finest qualities our nation can produce. To contemplate his character has given millions of Americans a sense of achievement and promise. Even when lifted out of reality and temporarily overshadowed by dazzling but ephemeral stars in the hero heaven, he manages to keep his place. History has affirmed the people's opinion of George Washington. He remains the greatest of great Americans.

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