Inventing George Washington: America's Founder, in Myth & Memory

Edward G. Lengel, Author
Edward G. Lengel, Harper, $25.99 (272p) ISBN 978-0-06-166258-4
Reviewed on: 02/07/2011
Release date: 01/01/2011
Paperback - 978-0-06-166259-1
Ebook - 272 pages - 978-0-06-187553-3
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Lengel, editor in chief of the Washington Papers project and author of General George Washington: A Military Life, contributes a worthy addition to the plentiful scholarship of George Washington, if for no other reason than his naysayer approach to that very scholarship; Lengel wants to set the record straight, and he takes on the "cheats and phonies in addition to the well-meaning storytellers [who] have capitalized on the American public's insatiable and ever-changing demand for information about" Washington. It's time to forget the cherry tree mythologies of our schoolbooks. Besides dismissing that tale (and the tellers who perpetrated it) outright, Lengel explores the surprisingly seedy underbelly of Washington biographers. For instance, one of the men who hopped on the George Washington myth-making bandwagon was no less than showman P.T. Barnum. Lengel's account of Barnum acquiring (for $1000) and then parading elderly African-American Joice Heth around the East Coast as "the 161-year-old slave mammy" to George Washington is equally disturbing and gripping; put on display 14 hours a day for a paying public, Heth soon died, and Barnum held a public autopsy—charging 50 cents a head. Lengel's end-of-book rant, when he tries to settle a score with filmmakers making a project for the Washington estate is a rare misstep in an otherwise fascinating, dryly humorous book. (Jan.)
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