Seeing As How It Is Washington’s Birthday More Or Less


I’d just like to remind people that it’s completely within their rights to see how much of Parson Weems’s biography of George Washington they can read aloud, to as large a crowd as possible, before cracking up. Here’s a practice sample from the Introduction:

And in all the ensigns of character amidst which he is generally drawn, you see none that represent him what he really was, “the Jupiter Conservator,” the friend and benefactor of men. Where’s his bright ploughshare that he loved — or his wheat-crowned fields, waving in yellow ridges before the wanton breeze — or his hills whitened over with flocks — or his clover-covered pastures spread with innumerous herds — or his neat-clad servants with songs rolling the heavy harvest before them? Such were the scenes of peace, plenty, and happiness, in which Washington delighted. But his eulogists have denied him these, the only scenes which belong to man the GREAT; and have trick’d him up in the vile drapery of man the little. See! there he stands! with the port of Mars “the destroyer,” dark frowning over the fields of war — the lightning of Potter’s blade is by his side — the deep-mouthed cannon is before him, disgorging its flesh-mangling balls — his war-horse pants with impatience to bear him, a speedy thunderbolt, against the pale and bleeding ranks of Britain! — These are the drawings usually given of Washington; drawings masterly no doubt, and perhaps justly descriptive of him in some scenes of his life. But scenes they were, which I am sure his soul abhorred, and in which, at any rate, you see nothing of his private virtues. These old fashioned commodities are generally thrown into the back ground of the picture; and treated, as the grandees at the London and Paris routs, treat their good old aunts and grandmothers, huddling them together into the back rooms, there to wheeze and cough by themselves, and not depress the fine laudanum-raised spirits of the young sparklers. And yet it was to those old fashioned virtues that our hero owed every thing. For they in fact were the food of the great actions of him, whom men call Washington. It was they that enabled him, first to triumph over himself; then over the British; and uniformly to set such bright examples of human perfectibility and true greatness, that, compared therewith, the history of his capturing Cornwallis and Tarleton, with their buccaneering legions, sounds almost as small as the story of General Putnam’s catching his wolf and her lamb-killing whelps.

And to help you get into the spirit of the thing and past that bit about Washington’s neat-clad servants with the rolling songs, here’s the statue Congress commissioned Horatio Greenough to carve of Washington that they decided, after a while, to hide while they looked for something less pompous to remember him by, like maybe a 555-foot-tall stick.

Marble statue of Washington, dressed as Jupiter more or less, holding up one hand and extending a sword in trade for your pants.

Yeah, that’s a miniature Christopher Columbus or somebody in the corner behind him.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

Trading dropped six points amidst concerns that the Nicaraguan peso might be overvalued and also that the currency of Nicaragua might not be pesos. “Back a couple decades didn’t they rename, like, everything for Trujillo? I bet they trade in Trujillos,” said Robert. Nobody was completely sure which Dave took as his excuse to tell, once again, how they would have built the Panama Canal in Nicaragua — “shut up, you know what I mean” he added defensively — except Americans are a-scared of volcanoes. The Nicaraguan córdoba is trading at about thirty to the US dollar. Rafael Trujillo was President of the Dominican Republic, not Nicaragua. Probably he visited Nicaragua at some point in his life. That would make sense.

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The Story Of Anyone’s Life


It’s a good time to write a biography, in case you’re thinking of doing such a thing. There are more people who’ve been alive now than there ever have been before. And that’s a trend that just isn’t going to change anytime soon. There’s already more than eight people ready to be biographied for every person able to write one. Or you can just write about Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon Bonaparte, Thomas Edison, or Abraham Lincoln again because you thought of some more stuff about him.

You do have to pick some subject, though. You can get a ways into the book without having one in mind, if you focus your efforts on the preface. There you can point out how you’re interested in getting at the truth, and that you’ve been hard at work examining original documents. And that you’re grateful for the assistance of a long list of people with three names each. Maybe thank a university press while you’re at it. They need the support and almost nobody visits them just to hug. But a good preface can only go as long as 58 pages before even the people who’re looking to see if their names get thanked get rebellious and try to take over the book.

Once you’ve picked a subject you can fill out the first chapter, in which you describe the subject’s death. This is an important scene for any biographer because it assures the reader that at some point the subject dies and the book will end. Oh, electronic books have made it theoretically possible to keep on writing more book before anybody can finish reading it. But there are practical objections. People can skim faster than you can write, for example. If you want to keep ahead of them you’re going to have to start describing how the subject read other biographies. Then include those. It helps you out doing this trick if you remember there’s more biographies now than there ever were before. And that’s another trend that’s going to keep going. But at some point even electronic books are going to run out of storage space and you might have to end mid-word. This could embarrass someone who might even be you.

If your subject hasn’t died, you have to be more careful writing the funeral scene. Since it’ll be in the future, your description of the details of what the day will be like and what people will be doing will be kind of science fiction. This should date your book hilariously by the time the predicted date comes to pass or else you’re doing it wrong. That could be an opportunity, admittedly. If you can be really extremely dated at least people will go looking up the funniest bits about what you wrote. But they’ll only quote the funniest parts and not think to laugh at the rest of your biography.

A danger in writing biographies is you can come out thinking worse of your subject. That’s all right if you go in writing a biography of someone you don’t like. Critics might ask why you’re doing a biography of someone you don’t like. “Why hate-biography,” they’d ask, “when there’ve been more likable people now than ever before?” You can answer, “Shouldn’t we know everything possible about the person who single-handedly fed the moon to Truman Capote?” If you can’t get away while they’re working that question out you aren’t trying hard enough. Maybe you need advice from a professional biographers’ association. Maybe you need better sneakers.

But there’s still hazards even if you still mostly like the subject by the end. For example you figure on how Thomas Edison was a bright, perceptive man with a keen sense for what was possible and desirable. Then you remember he spent seven years and tens of thousands of dollars trying to make dolls stuffed full of record players. Maybe you can get back your esteem for him from that. If you forget that he went from the record-player-doll project to stomping around New Jersey rock quarries shouting “MORE MAGNETS!” at any ore that would listen. And you just know some of that rock was magnesiochromite.

Well. Sometimes you have to take the risk, and biography someone who turns out to be a drip. It’s an important lesson and a turning point in the biography someone’s writing about you. Good luck.

Statistics Saturday: An Incomplete List Of People Who Were All Alive At The Same Time


  • Adolphe Sax
  • Albert Einstein
  • Alexander Woollcott
  • Thomas Henry Huxley
  • “Typhoid” Mary Mallon
  • Francis X Bushman
  • Alfred Nobel
  • Arthur Schesinger Sr
  • Alfred, Lord Tennyson
  • Casey Jones
  • Chester W Nimitz
  • Oscar Wilde
  • Conrad Hilton
  • Dwight David Eisenhower
  • Walt Whitman
  • Edward Everett Horton
  • Edwin Hubble
  • Elihu Root
  • Adolphe Menjou
  • Erle Stanley Gardner
  • Susan B Anthony
  • T E Lawrence
  • Ford Madox Ford
  • Franz Kafka
  • Garret A Hobert
  • Jules Verne
  • Avery Brundage
  • Georg Cantor
  • Grover Cleveland Alexander
  • Samuel Gompers
  • Gustav Klimt
  • Harpo Marx
  • Helena Blavatsky
  • Henry “Hap” Arnold
  • Herman Melville
  • Ho Chi Minh
  • Joel Chandler Harris
  • Horatio Alger Jr
  • Willis O’Brien
  • Alexandre Dumas, fils
  • Irving Berlin
  • Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom
  • Jay Gould
  • Paul Reuter
  • Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte II
  • Lady Olave Baden-Powell
  • John Maynard Keynes
  • Otto von Bismarck
  • Louis Vuitton
  • L Frank Baum
  • Frank Morgan
  • Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
  • Matthew Brady
  • Mohandas Gandhi
  • George Washington Ferris, Jr
  • Maurice Chevalier
  • Menelik II, Emperor of Ethiopia
  • P T Barnum
  • Neville Chamberlain
  • Louis Pasteur
  • Raymond Chandler
  • Robert Benchley
  • Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Rutherford B Hayes
  • Thomas Edison
  • Upton Sinclair
  • Walter Gropius
  • William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody
  • Vincent van Gogh
  • Winsor McCay

Telling Lies About George Washington. Or Not. Hard To Say.


My love and I were talking about presidents, what with our just having gone past a day, and the way that Abraham Lincoln feels so close and accessible while George Washington feels remote. But Washington worked so hard his whole life after that first time he started a world war to project an unapproachable dignity, while Lincoln eagerly leapt at the chance to get in touch with ordinary folks, like the time he toured as Jenny Lind’s opening act. It struck me too that Lincoln is just so quotable, even among dialogue that wasn’t made up for his appearance opposite some space potatoes on Star Trek, while with Washington … well, can you think of anything Washington said besides his awesome squelching of the Newburgh Conspiracy and, of course, “I cannot tell a lie”, which he didn’t even say?

And that got us thinking about the cherry-tree incident since my love and I realized that we all knew the story of how Young George Washington supposedly chopped down a tree and confessed it to his father, but we realized we had no idea why he chopped down the tree in the first place. It sounds like a jerk move, all around, and while yeah, boys can be jerks, it seems weird to tell a story that starts out from the premise that Young George Washington set out to be a jerk, but at least he talked about it to anyone who asked. So I got to looking up the whole cherry-tree thing.

We get the cherry-tree story of course form the biographer Mason Locke Weems, who was called Parson Weems even by his friends, to his face, while he was listening, and it turns out I might be wrong in thinking he just made the whole thing up. Apparently while there’s no independent source for the story, he claimed he got it from an old woman who claimed she knew Washington when they were both young, and anyway nobody’s found where he might have plagiarized it from, so, hey, maybe it did happen.

And that’s why I got to actually reading a little bit of the biography where Weems made up all this interesting stuff about Washington. Now, it’s probably inevitable for a biographer to get into really admiring the biographied person. It’s hard to spend all that time writing about someone and not find something you like, no matter how much bad there might be to say about the person. Edward Renehan’s 2005 biography of robber baron Jay Gould, for example, mentions in its introduction that “while Gould was guilty of stock-watering, back in those days the public called stock-watering many things that we now regard as ordinary business practice, as if that makes us look any good, and besides four separate grand juries refused to indict him for his habit of eating babies even after Gould stopped payment on his checks to them. I can show you the papers.” And Washington is an easier guy to like, what with his shallower connections to corrupt railroad corporations.

Indeed, Weems was really quite Washington-mad, as in this bit from the introduction which I am not making up or exaggerating: “And in all the ensigns of character amidst which he is generally drawn, you see none that represent him what he really was, `the Jupiter Conservator,’ the friend and benefactor of men.” This is true. Nearly every biography I’ve read about Washington treats him as an intelligent, reserved, image-conscious man who overcame the inability of groups of Americans to competently manage anything and not just get the British to pick on India instead of America but also to build a federal government just able to overcome seventeen guys in western Pennsylvania not paying the whisky tax, downplaying the part where he’s an Olympian god suckled by a goat.

And the whole book is like that, just magnificently brassy. Washington can’t even die peacefully sick: “Swift on angel’s wings the brightening saint ascended; while voices more than human were warbling through the happy regions, and hymning the great procession towards the gates of heaven. His glorious coming was seen afar off; and myriads of mighty angels hastened forth, with golden harps, to welcome the honoured stranger. High in front of the shouting hosts, were seen the beauteous forms of Franklin, Warren, Mercer, Scammel, and of him who fell at Quebec, with all the virtuous patriots, who, on the side of Columbia, toiled or bled for liberty and truth.” I feel positively curmudgeonly in asking the obvious question of “does anybody know who Scammel is supposed to be?” I’m none too sure about this Warren character either. Somebody check if he’s supposed to be on the list of myriad angel-hasteners.

Anyway, for the record, here’s the anecdote as Weems gives it.

“When George,” said she, “was about six years old, he was made the wealthy master of a hatchet! of which, like most little boys, he was immoderately fond, and was constantly going about chopping everything that came in his way. One day, in the garden, where he often amused himself hacking his mother’s pea-sticks, he unluckily tried the edge of his hatchet on the body of a beautiful young English cherry-tree, which he barked so terribly, that I don’t believe the tree ever got the better of it. The next morning the old gentleman, finding out what had befallen his tree, which, by the by, was a great favourite, came into the house; and with much warmth asked for the mischievous author, declaring at the same time, that he would not have taken five guineas for his tree. Nobody could tell him anything about it. Presently George and his hatchet made their appearance. `George,’ said his father, `do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry tree yonder in the garden?’ This was a tough question; and George staggered under it for a moment; but quickly recovered himself: and looking at his father, with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all-conquering truth, he bravely cried out, `I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.’ — `Run to my arms, you dearest boy,’ cried his father in transports, `run to my arms; glad am I, George, that you killed my tree; for you have paid me for it a thousand fold. Such an act of heroism in my son is more worth than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver, and their fruits of purest gold’.”

I can actually accept its core point, that someone was stupid enough to give a six-year-old a hatchet and this immediately produced a wide swath of things hatcheted into pieces. If there’s anything six-year-olds shouldn’t be given if you don’t want things hatcheted into pieces, it’s things.

Finley Peter Dunne: A Book Review


It’s been ages since I featured anything by Finley Peter Dunne, whose columns, presented as the voice of Mister Dooley, fictional owner of an Irish pub in the South Side of Chicago. Dunne reached heights of influence and attention that most writers dream of. His blend of wit, satire, and folksiness achieves a timelessness that belies how much his stuff was written in response to what was news that week. Here, from the 1900 collection Mister Dooley’s Philosophy, is a review of the book describing an implausible character’s experiences in the Cuban War.


“Well sir,” said Mr. Dooley, “I jus’ got hold iv a book, Hinnissy, that suits me up to th’ handle, a gran’ book, th’ grandest iver seen. Ye know I’m not much throubled be lithrachoor, havin’ manny worries iv me own, but I’m not prejudiced again’ books. I am not. Whin a rale good book comes along I’m as quick as anny wan to say it isn’t so bad, an’ this here book is fine. I tell ye ’tis fine.”

“What is it?” Mr. Hennessy asked languidly.

“‘Tis ‘Th’ Biography iv a Hero be Wan who Knows.’ ‘Tis ‘Th’ Darin’ Exploits iv a Brave Man be an Actual Eye Witness.’ ‘Tis ‘Th’ Account iv th’ Desthruction iv Spanish Power in th’ Ant Hills,’ as it fell fr’m th’ lips iv Tiddy Rosenfelt an’ was took down be his own hands. Ye see ’twas this way, Hinnissy, as I r-read th’ book. Whin Tiddy was blowed up in th’ harbor iv Havana he instantly con-cluded they must be war. He debated th’ question long an’ earnestly an’ fin’lly passed a jint resolution declarin’ war. So far so good. But there was no wan to carry it on. What shud he do? I will lave th’ janial author tell th’ story in his own wurruds.

“‘Th’ sicrety iv war had offered me,’ he says, ‘th’ command of a rig’mint,’ he says, ‘but I cud not consint to remain in Tampa while perhaps less audacious heroes was at th’ front,’ he says. ‘Besides,’ he says, ‘I felt I was incompetent f’r to command a rig’mint raised be another,’ he says. ‘I detarmined to raise wan iv me own,’ he says. ‘I selected fr’m me acquaintances in th’ West,’ he says, ‘men that had thravelled with me acrost th’ desert an’ th’ storm-wreathed mountain,’ he says, ‘sharin’ me burdens an’ at times confrontin’ perils almost as gr-reat as anny that beset me path,’ he says. ‘Together we had faced th’ turrors iv th’ large but vilent West,’ he says, ‘an’ these brave men had seen me with me trusty rifle shootin’ down th’ buffalo, th’ elk, th’ moose, th’ grizzly bear, th’ mountain goat,’ he says, ‘th’ silver man, an’ other ferocious beasts iv thim parts,’ he says. ‘An’ they niver flinched,’ he says. ‘In a few days I had thim perfectly tamed,’ he says, ‘an’ ready to go annywhere I led,’ he says. ‘On th’ thransport goi’n to Cubia,’ he says, ‘I wud stand beside wan iv these r-rough men threatin’ him as a akel, which he was in ivrything but birth, education, rank an’ courage, an’ together we wud look up at th’ admirable stars iv that tolerable southern sky an’ quote th’ bible fr’m Walt Whitman,’ he says. ‘Honest, loyal, thrue-hearted la-ads, how kind I was to thim,’ he says.”

“‘We had no sooner landed in Cubia than it become nicessry f’r me to take command iv th’ ar-rmy which I did at wanst. A number of days was spint be me in reconnoitring, attinded on’y be me brave an’ fluent body guard, Richard Harding Davis. I discovered that th’ inimy was heavily inthrenched on th’ top iv San Juon hill immejiately in front iv me. At this time it become apparent that I was handicapped be th’ prisence iv th’ ar-rmy,’ he says. ‘Wan day whin I was about to charge a block house sturdily definded be an ar-rmy corps undher Gin’ral Tamale, th’ brave Castile that I aftherwards killed with a small ink-eraser that I always carry, I r-ran into th’ entire military force iv th’ United States lying on its stomach. ‘If ye won’t fight,’ says I, ‘let me go through, ‘I says. ‘Who ar-re ye?’ says they. ‘Colonel Rosenfelt,’ says I. ‘Oh, excuse me,’ says the gin’ral in command (if me mimry serves me thrue it was Miles) r-risin’ to his knees an’ salutin’. This showed me ‘twud be impossible f’r to carry th’ war to a successful con-clusion unless I was free, so I sint th’ ar-rmy home an’ attackted San Juon hill. Ar-rmed on’y with a small thirty-two which I used in th’ West to shoot th’ fleet prairie dog, I climbed that precipitous ascent in th’ face iv th’ most gallin’ fire I iver knew or heerd iv. But I had a few r-rounds iv gall mesilf an’ what cared I? I dashed madly on cheerin’ as I wint. Th’ Spanish throops was dhrawn up in a long line in th’ formation known among military men as a long line. I fired at th’ man nearest to me an’ I knew be th’ expression iv his face that th’ trusty bullet wint home. It passed through his frame, he fell, an’ wan little home in far-off Catalonia was made happy be th’ thought that their riprisintative had been kilt be th’ future governor iv New York. Th’ bullet sped on its mad flight an’ passed through th’ intire line fin’lly imbeddin’ itself in th’ abdomen iv th’ Ar-rch-bishop iv Santiago eight miles away. This ended th’ war.’

“‘They has been some discussion as to who was th’ first man to r-reach th’ summit iv San Juon hill. I will not attempt to dispute th’ merits iv th’ manny gallant sojers, statesmen, corryspondints an’ kinetoscope men who claim th’ distinction. They ar-re all brave men an’ if they wish to wear my laurels they may. I have so manny annyhow that it keeps me broke havin’ thim blocked an’ irned. But I will say f’r th’ binifit iv Posterity that I was th’ on’y man I see. An I had a tillyscope.'”

“I have thried, Hinnissy,” Mr. Dooley continued, “to give you a fair idee iv th’ contints iv this remarkable book, but what I’ve tol’ ye is on’y what Hogan calls an outline iv th’ principal pints. Ye’ll have to r-read th’ book ye’ersilf to get a thrue conciption. I haven’t time f’r to tell ye th’ wurruk Tiddy did in ar-rmin’ an’ equippin’ himself, how he fed himsilf, how he steadied himsilf in battle an’ encouraged himsilf with a few well-chosen wurruds whin th’ sky was darkest. Ye’ll have to take a squint into th’ book ye’ersilf to l’arn thim things.”

“I won’t do it,” said Mr. Hennessy. “I think Tiddy Rosenfelt is all r-right an’ if he wants to blow his hor-rn lave him do it.”

“Thrue f’r ye,” said Mr. Dooley, “an’ if his valliant deeds didn’t get into this book ‘twud be a long time befure they appeared in Shafter’s histhry iv th’ war. No man that bears a gredge again’ himsilf ‘ll iver be governor iv a state. An’ if Tiddy done it all he ought to say so an’ relieve th’ suspinse. But if I was him I’d call th’ book ‘Alone in Cubia.'”

Explaining The Angles


I’ve been working on a biography of Donald Coxeter, one of the most important geometers of the 20th century. I mean reading it, since the hard work of writing it was already done by someone else (Siobhan Roberts), and the even harder work of being an important geometer of the 20th century was done by another person entirely (Donald Coxeter). Mine is really the easiest part except for the people who aren’t reading it, who can do that anytime and from anywhere. Anyway, I’d run across some of his work in references to H M S Coxeter, and a careful examination of the first paragraph pointed out that “Donald” is not one of the leading names with an initial H, M, or S.

Anyway, Roberts explains that Donald’s parents wanted to call him Donald, and they did, but “the birth certificate recorded his first name officially as MacDonald, after his father’s father”. Fine and/or dandy. His mother added “Scott” to honor another relative, and a godparent suggested that he should have his father’s name of Harold, too, and that’s why he was Harold Scott MacDonald Coxeter.

And I just admire how very much that looks as if it explained the situation.