YOU NEVER FORGET YOUR FIRST TIME
A biography of George Washington
By Alexis Coe
Read by Brittany Pressley
Given that we are now a nation of parlor epidemiologists, it was oddly relevant to learn that George Washington survived the following diseases, among others: smallpox, malaria (six times), diphtheria, tuberculosis (twice), dysentery and tuberculosis at the same time (four times) and pneumonia.
We usually take it for granted that Washington was an awesome man, but triumphing over so many diseases in an age when cures ranged from draining your blood to draining your blood again seems almost superhuman. Even more so when the ailments are presented as a list with symptoms (including words like ‘excruciating’, ‘bloody’, ‘pustules’) and treatments (sometimes just ‘prayer’), as in ‘You Never Forget Your First,” “Alexis Coe’s new biography on the man and president we only thought we knew.
As this historian illustrates, most of what we know is either wrong – no child would cut down a cherry tree to do harm; wood would be an exceptionally bad material for dentures – or less interesting than what existing history books have overlooked.
The disease chart (hard to follow in narrator Brittany Pressley’s audiobook version, in which jerky transitions between narrative and sidebar detract from the experience) isn’t just there for fun; he’s a stealth fighter in Coe’s battle against the existing canon of Washington’s biographies. The physical obstacles the man overcame, she argues, are better evidence of his strength and resilience than the details other popular biographers have focused on: namely, his thighs. She nicknames these historians, Ron Chernow the first of them, the “Thigh Men of Dad History”, that is to say men (and they are all men) who write the history of men for men. . For her, their reflexive focus on stereotypical Washington masculinity means they overlook other things that are more important: its flaws and contradictions, the textures of life in the 18th century. The nickname makes me cringe, but it’s effective.
It also alludes to Coe’s larger project, which is a significant achievement. She skillfully disguised a historiographical intervention in the form of a sometimes cheeky presidential biography. By moving quickly away from the “Thigh Men”, she demonstrates that just because more conventional presidential biographies sometimes approach the length of the Bible (Chernow’s “Washington” is 900 pages) does not mean that they constitute an account. infallible or unfiltered rendering of events. . History, this book argues, is always an interpretation of the past and an argument about what it means.
In a self-reported introduction, Coe tells us that a few years after she began her research, she discovered that no female historian had written an adult biography of Washington in over 40 years – and it turns out. saw. Recent biographers have called the president’s mother, Mary Washington, a tough and indiscreet woman, despite no contemporary evidence of this. But the absence of corroboration mattered little to these authors: “Everyone knows,” says Coe, “that, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, a woman is probably a shrew.” She then provides a “devastating sampling of Mary Washington’s descriptions of Ron Chernow”, which include: “self-centered”, “querulous”, “rude”, “rude”, “hypocritical”, “negligent”, “strangely indifferent”, ” crispy” and “complainant”.
The Thigh Men, she says, “would have done well to review early American motherhood scholarship with the same interest they had in military history.” Such scholarship became available largely due to the increased admission of women and people of color to the academy around the 1960s; entire disciplines are now focusing on the historical contributions of women, slaves, Indigenous peoples, immigrants, and other marginalized groups, and in doing so are changing the way we tell America’s story.
This book exists in that tradition, arguing that there is room for people other than the Thigh Men to write biographies of George Washington and any other part of American history, just as there is room for writers in addition to women and people of color to focus on the stories of marginalized groups.
Coe points to the truth that our first president was a slaver from the age of 11 until his death, which might not sit well with readers who prefer to see their founders as statues of unblemished marble. She regularly mentions the slaves he owned and kept around him; how he treated them (paying below market value for their teeth to be used as dentures); as well as his ambivalent participation in the institution as a whole. Understanding Washington this way should not be seen as a choice: slavery, among other atrocities, was politics, and he was a politician.
That’s not to say Coe’s biography isn’t flawed – readers eager to hear about Washington’s military heroism, for example, will be disappointed. I was relieved to be spared the details of the Revolutionary War battles, and much preferred to hear from Washington, the spymaster and propagandist. But the details of the war deserve deeper attention than Coe gives them: I had to listen to his description of how Washington would have started the French and Indian war several times, and I am still confused.
The lack of detail surrounding Washington’s time as a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses and the First Continental Congress is also puzzling. If he hadn’t left many writings about it, it would have been good to know. As things stand, the impression is that he had no idea about politics until he became president.
Unfortunately, Pressley’s stentorian affect detracts from the authenticity of the dialogue between Washington and his contemporaries, undermining Coe’s argument that the founders were people too, just like us. They weren’t gods, and their lives weren’t the stuff of myth and legend – even though one of them survived malaria six times in the 1700s.