Citizen Washington by William Martin
As an experiment this semester, I am using an historical novel instead of a conventional biography. This has the potential problem of confusing students about what is "fact" and what is "fiction." Of course, done by a competent and knowledgeable writer, historical fiction can shed insight and new perspective on an area of history or on the life of an individual. George Washington played the central role in the founding of the American republic and an examination of his life and career is one way to approach this fascinating aspect of American history.
Below, I have reprinted a brief review of the novel and have included a very brief note about the various narrators, indicating who are fictional and who are historical. While the novel is heavily grounded in fact, there are many scenes which are not documented. Students are urged to ask about particular issues or events if they are not sure whether they occurred or not.
As you read the novel, read it critically. How is George Washington portrayed? What are his strengths and weaknesses? Along the same line, how is General Charles Lee portrayed? What are his strengths and weaknesses? How does the author develop the quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Action is character"?
From Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 1999
Compelling biographical fiction that probes the unlikelihoods and uncertainties behind George Washington's hallowed historical presence. Just in time for Presidents Weekend comes another fictional rendering that hunts for the man behind the myth, told in Rashomon-like narratives attributed to real and imaginary eyewitnesses, from a skillful school-of-Michener epic novelist (Annapolis, 1996, etc.) and nonfictional historian of the religious right (With God on Our Side, 1996). The conceit that starts the tale is a mystery: Why did Martha ``Patsy'' Washington burn a collection of personal letters on the night her husband died? Just after Washington is buried, crusty Hesperus Draper, a self-made colonial who worked his way up from tidewater trader to colonial solider, landholder, and anti-Federalist newspaper publisher, pays his naive, youthful writer-wannabe nephew, Christopher Draper, a king's ransom to find out what those letters may have contained. He advises Christopher to pretend to be writing a biography of Washington in order to gain access to those who knew Washington while he was alive. Martin's story takes shape in the form of Christopher's vernacular notes, supplemented by conveniently discovered written memoirs from those who died before Washington. The visceral, blood-in-the-trenches recollections of the fictional Hesperus, and the brotherly affections of Washington's slave, Jacob, are among the best of many vividly imaginative constructions. We also get strikingly different glimpses of Washington from Silverheels, a Native American; from Washington's coquettish lover, Mrs. Sarah ``Sally'' Fairfax; from the fretful Martha; and from Washington's numerous political and military rivals. These contrary impressions reveal a postmodern enigma: a conflicted character whose every act was darkened by premonitions of failure, the kind of leader that if he had not really been one of the best intentioned men in the world . . . might have been a very dangerous one. A strongly satisfying, eminently readable saga that suggests well never completely understand, or condone, the contradictions and inconsistencies of which great leaders are made. -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
The Narrators in the Novel, Citizen Washington [Listed in order of appearance in the novel]
Hesperus Draper - Fictional
Jacob - Fictional
Silverheels - Fictional
Dr. James Craik - GW's personal physician and close friend
Martha Washington - GW's wife
John Adams - Patriot leader from Massachusetts, Second President
Billy Lee - GW's personal man-servant throughout the Revolution
Joseph Reed - GW's military secretary and later adjutant general. Later president of the Supreme Executive Council.
Abigail Adams - John Adam's wife and fascinating early American woman.
Matt Jacobs - Fictional
Alexander Hamilton - GW's military aide; later first Secretary of the Treasury.
Marquis de Lafayette, Frenchman who served as a general in the American Revolution. A particular favorite of GW.
Nelly Custis Lewis - The attractive granddaughter of Martha Washington and step-granddaughter of GW.
Sally Cary Fairfax - The wife of GW's friend, George William Fairfax of Belvoir. GW held particularly deep feelings for her, although their relationship is unclear and controversial.
Thomas Jefferson - Virginia leader and author of the Declaration of Independence. Third President.