The Perils of Writing about Greatness

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J.L. Wall

J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he studies literature and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

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7 Responses

  1. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    We have an unfortuante tendency, especially in popular culture, to deify the Founders rather than to humanize them. I remain convinced that a flawed, human, limited, and even morally ambiguous Washington is a much better role model and a much better sort of figure to admire than the deified object of specious idol-worship that sometimes passes for education about the man.

    The truth is better than hagiography anyway. George was from the upper class, and suffered from the limits of an upper class world view. But without the education and lofty ideals that came with being a member of the Enlightenment-era upper class, he would also have never embraced liberty, for the rich and poor alike, as an ideal worth fighting and even dying for. That’s an impressive moral achievement and it’s more impressive if he’s human rather than divine when he makes that decision.

    That a flawed, limited man could find a way to embrace a cause larger than himself, that he could see a nation forming around himself and move that nation significantly closer to liberty through those attributes about himself that we admire, renders his memory that of an example we can actually emulate instead of a demigod we can only worship. The whole point of having heroes is so that we can learn from them how to deal with the world. It’s not necessary that the hero be a paragon of human achievement and ability; even when you acknowledge the warts, flaws, and ambiguities in this very human figure from our past, you could do a lot worse than George Washington as your hero.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Burt Likko says:

      “We have an unfortuante tendency, especially in popular culture, to deify the Founders rather than to humanize them.”

      Which is, among other things, why I hate it when someone says “oh, well the FOUNDERS wouldn’t have agreed to THAT” in counter to some piece of government fuckery. In the first place, it’s an Argument From Authority; in the second…they wouldn’t? Really? How would you know? “The Founders” did quite a lot of things that The Founders Wouldn’t Have Agreed To.Report

  2. Avatar Anderson says:

    I’m a few hundred pages into Chernow’s “Alexander Hamilton” (haven’t had a chance to read the Washington one) and I echo many of the sentiments expressed here, particularly your idea that Chernow approaches Washington/ Hamilton as a Great Man from the get go, rather than offering critical respect. Yet I don’t find this adoration bothersome, due to both the strong writing and the immense attention to detail. I can’t help but be blown away by how many consequential actions Hamilton took in his life, not to mention his role as a highly original philosopher-politician; his fingerprints are over practically EVERY aspect of our country’s basic documents. Hamilton’s unique (and,compared to the other Founders, quite miserable) upbringing endears him to me as well, which Chernow mentions constantly…Though the book teeters into hero-worship on occasion, it seems that Chernow’s passion as an academic historian has led him to believe in the greatness (not perfection, mind you) of these two gentlemen, rather than some blind faith in promoting nationalistic myths.Report

  3. Avatar Will says:

    A fictional portrayal that emphatically does not approach Washington – or any of the other Founders – with timidity is Vidal’s Burr, which I wrote about previously and greatly enjoyed. It veers a little too far in the other direction at times, but if you’re looking to demystify our political demigods, I can think of worse places to start.Report

  4. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    “laid bear”

    Give me a damn break.Report

  5. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    Napoleon observed greatness was the combination of the times and the man. The most significant of all George Washington’s career relationships was with General Edward Braddock. Washington volunteered to serve under Braddock. Braddock very likely died in Washington’s arms. Washington did conduct the funeral. Washington never went anywhere without wearing Braddock’s sash, a parting gift from the dying man.

    The grave of Edward Braddock was ceded in perpetuity to Britain.Report

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