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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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