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Inventing George Washington: America's Founder, in Myth and Memory Hardcover – January 18, 2011

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.
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From Booklist

Lengel’s survey of falsehoods told or believed about George Washington inspects biographies, manuscripts, paintings, and films that skirt verisimilitude in the quest for popularity. Hardly humorless rebukes to mythmaking panderers to the hoi polloi, Lengel’s wry critiques of specific works connect stories and facts of dubious provenance with a generation’s propensity to believe them. His attentiveness to evolving markets for information about Washington readily explains why Parson Weems’ cherry-tree story became a phenomenally popular tutorial in Washington’s virtues, how mid-nineteenth-century confections about young George’s romances answered to the feminine book-buying demographic, that a forger’s productions from the same period still deceive unwary manuscript dealers, and how yearning for a Christian Washington inspired fabrications of his religious life that contemporary public figures still cite. The persistence of fabrications despite twentieth-century debunking still infects even careful biographies, such as, Lengel admits, his own General George Washington (2005). As the latest life, Ron Chernow’s Washington (2010), undergoes myth-searching scrutiny, its likely success paves the way for Lengel’s entertaining commiseration with posterity’s imagined George Washington. --Gilbert Taylor

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; First Edition edition (January 18, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061662585
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061662584
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (55 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #162,072 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Wulfstan TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on November 29, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Edward G. Lengel is an associate professor of history at the University of Virginia and Editor-in-Chief of the Washington Papers Project. He is the author of several books on military history, including General George Washington: A Military Life. A recipient, with the Papers of George Washington documentary editing project, of the National Humanities Medal, he has made frequent appearances on television documentaries and was a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize.

Here he delivers an entertaining & oft-times fun book about the history, myths and legends of America's Founding Father. Inventing George Washington, is considered a counterpart to the authors larger work- General George Washington: A Military Life.

The book should not be considered a stand-alone biography or history of Geo. Washington. What it covers is the myths, legends and stories that sprung up in the footsteps ("George Washington Slept here!"- "I can not tell a lie, I chopped the cherry tree") of the Father of our Country.

It's a fun, and sometimes light hearted tale- but the book is still scholarly, extensively footnoted, sourced and researched.

I wish that in covering and debunking some of the myths, the author had then explained more of what the Real Truth was behind the myths, but apparently that is covered in his Magnum Opus.

I really enjoyed the section where the author is hired as a technical source for a documentary short about the first President, and his troubles with the film producers as opposed to that of the rather fanatical re-enactors hired on to portray soldiers in the film.

Overall a Good Read.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Phelps Gates VINE VOICE on November 30, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
No American figure has has attracted more legends than George Washington. Shortly before writing this, I saw a quote from Julian Assange, "Every American schoolchild is taught that George Washington ... could not tell a lie." Are children really still taught this? Cherries do decorate the February pages of calendars, but surely no one now believes the cherry tree story (though a google search reveals, astonishingly, that it's presented as fact in William Bennett's Children's Book of Virtues!)

In any case, a book about Washington mythology promises to be fascinating, and this book doesn't disappoint. It's not a biography of Washington (the author has already written one of those), but a highly entertaining account of how he has been perceived and how stories about him came into being and grew (the silver dollar thrown across the Potomac started as a rock across the Rappahannock!) The author is head of the Washington Papers project, and has an encyclopedic knowledge of what's true and what's bogus in quotes and stories about the Father of His Country: the book not only expertly separates fact from fiction, but (more important) also explains what it was about various periods of the country's history that made certain stories gain credibility or lose it. An expecially interesting chapter discusses the era of the debunkers (roughly 1920-40) which culminated in Grant Wood's famous painting that you can see on the book's cover. By the time the debunkers finished with him, Washington ended up as wooden as his supposed false teeth, and it's taken another half century for him to take on life again (along with a bunch of new myths).

As the author documents, many of the bogus quotes and stories are still circulated and apparently believed, generally by people with various agendas.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Malvin VINE VOICE on December 9, 2010
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
"Inventing George Washington" by Edward G. Lengel is a thoroughly engaging account of America's perplexing and ever-changing relationship with its iconic Founding Father. Mr. Lengel brings new understanding to American politics, art and culture by sharing how Washington's life story has been widely interpreted by various individuals, interest groups and causes. Intended to be read by a wide audience, Mr. Lengel's fascinating book accomplishes the goal of bringing a measure of fun into the sometimes stuffy genre of Washington studies.

Mr. Lengel explains that mythmaking has served to reconcile the tension between Washington's closely-guarded private life and his meticulously cultivated public image. Mr. Lengel recounts how successful writers such as Parson Weems, George Lippard, Caroline Matilda Kirkland, James Thomas Flexner, William Woodward and Caroline Ellis catered to public expectations by producing both praiseworthy and debunking stories about Washington's many perceived or invented personas; from the astute statesman to the fearless warrior, romantic lady's man, pious servant of God, and so on. Within the discussion, Mr. Lengel samples short snippets from some of these texts to reveal fascinating and frequently humorous insights into the authors and their audiences from the 1700s to the present day, if not about Washington himself.

To his credit, Mr. Lengel takes aim at some of the most persistent Washington myths that continue to haunt us in the present day. Unfortunately, a number of televangelists and politicians have used the media to spread bogus Christian-propagandist Washington legends and quotes far and wide. Mr.
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