Defending Lengel

Last week I did a post on Michiko Kakutani’s New York Times review of Edward Lengel’s Inventing George Washington: America’s Founder in Myth and Memory.  I mentioned, albeit briefly, that I thought her review of Lengel was “a bit harsh for a woman who is a literary critic and not a historian.”

Over at Boston 1775, J.L. Bell has weighed in on this topic as well. (And he has done so in a much more thorough and reflective way than I did).  Here is a taste:

As I wrote yesterday, in his recent Inventing George Washington, Edward G. Lengel contrasted the two major biographies of Washington published in the mid-1900s, finding Freeman’s to be careful but dry and Flexner’s lively but tacitly fictionalized.
New York Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani recently criticized Lengel for such judgments:

Mr. Lengel has a reductive either-or mind-set when it comes to biographical treatments of Washington’s life, suggesting that on the one hand, there are dry, factual accounts, which lack “the glue of imagination and inspiration,” and, on the other, colorful, popular portraits by the likes of Parson [Mason] Weems, who created narratives filled with dubious anecdotes — like the famous cherry tree story and the Indian prophecy that Washington would never be killed by a bullet — which probably originated in popular oral legends, hearsay or “in Weems’s own imagination.”

However false Weems-like anecdotes might be, Mr. Lengel argues, they “lent to Washington a degree of vibrancy and three-dimensionality that he might otherwise have lost,” whereas more serious scholars, in his view, took “the fun out of Washington and transformed him into a plate of cold fish.” This is absurd: just as it’s irresponsible for a historian to rationalize fantasy-based portraits of a historical figure because they make the individual accessible to the masses, so is it myopic to insinuate that accuracy and compelling writing are somehow mutually exclusive — as absorbing works like Mr. [Joseph] Ellis’s books on the founding fathers have made very clear.

In addition to Ellis’s His Excellency (2004) on the first President, Kakutani also recommended Ron Chernow’s “prodigiously researched” Washington: A Life (2010). Her review suggests that both refute Lengel’s suggestion that we have to choose between dry factual rigor and vivid portraiture.

But how does Kakutani judge what biographies are accurate? She studied literature, not Revolutionary history, and worked as a reporter before becoming a regular reviewer for the Times. As I noted back here, Chernow is one of the authors who, following Flexner, wrote that Washington deliberately spread disinformation about his army having 1,800 barrels of gunpowder—which turns out to be one of those “dubious anecdotes.”