Monday, November 05, 2007

Richard Brookhiser: Founding Father

It's very possible that this is a wonderful book. It was never going to tickle my pickle, though as it is a number of things that I don't really appreciate: a) a biography b) a biography of a dead white man c) early American history d) history of patriarchy. Not really my thing. Even if it was the best biography of the most imporant dead white man in early American history that also happened to touch on the history of patriarchy, I probably wasn't going to be super engaged. I'm not convinced that this book was the best, though.

Interestingly, I also finished an old issue (August 6th, 2007) of "The New Yorker" today, which contained an article on biography by Louis Menand. biographies are popular, he writes, because "People enjoy judging other people's lives They enjoy it excessively." Fortunately, Brookhiser does not dally too much in the boring and typical "judgement" of typical biographies. He keeps his book relatively short, and has divided it up (in a way that reminded me of a college thesis) into three sections, each of these divided into three sections. He discusses Washington's career: as the Commander in Chief of the Revoluntionary War, as the President of the Constituional Convention, and as the first President of the U.S. The next section is about Washington's character- his Nature (the physical aspects, mostly), his Morals and his Ideas. Apparantly Washington was very into manners (morals) and not very well officially educated (ideas) but very well self-schooled. Brookhiser does a lot to distinguish his ideas from ones that were successful and not so succesful at the time.

The final section is what "distinguishes" this biography from biographies in general. Brookhiser discusses Washington as a "Founding Father": he looks at fathers in general (Washington's died young and he never had kids), patriarchs and masters as models for fathers, and Washington as father of his country. This is the section where Brookhiser did "ok" as a historian, but if were to get really really into this book, I needed him to act as a theorist. There was not a single discussion of gender, or of implications for patriarchy as a model here. There were tiptoing forays into discussions of slavery as a model for government, but even that was left way untouched.

I would not make a very good historian. I would not have put "rediscovering" in the title of this book. We were not "rediscovering" in the sense that Menand writes about: "the premise of biographies is that the private can account for the public, that the subject's accomplishments map onto his or her psychic history, and this premise is the justification for digging up the traumatic, the indifensible, and the shameful and getting it all into print." Brookhiser gets close to "rediscovering" in a more theoretical way, and then shies away- we're looking at too traditional of a subject to analyze it with more critical/theoretical eyes. Disappointing. If you're a historian and like dead white males, you'll probably like this book- it's fairly readable. If not, skip it.