Wednesday, February 05, 2020

History of George Washington's thighs

The most striking history book discussion I have seen in a while is the Smithsonian Institution's interview with historian Karin Wulf. (Credit to History News Network for the link.)

Wolf has written a new biography of George Washington. That's Washington biography #4597 or so, I would have said, but this one is entitled You Never Forget Your First. Some of it, in fact, reads as if the now-defunct Historiann blog, with its investigations of historical "sausage-fests," was back in business. The book promises a fresh and irreverant feminist understand of Washington, and it does offer new perspectives on both the great man and his biographers:
To tell you the truth, I really never noticed Washington’s thighs in portraits, but [male biographers] wouldn’t stop talking about them. I’d never read a biography on a woman where they talked about her legs constantly. I’d never thought about a woman ... I’m thinking about someone like Sylvia Plath. I’d never looked at a photo of her and thought about her legs.
And the way that they would describe them, “He gripped the saddle with his thunderous thighs.” It was a little inappropriate, sometimes read like a romance novel. And I couldn’t really figure out why. Did they just really love his thighs? Were there a lack of great thighs in early America?
There is sharp analysis on more conventional topics too: 
Washington wanted to shape his legacy, but he didn’t totally understand what we would think about him. I do feel as though the paving the road to emancipation for the people he enslaved [as he famously did in his will] was mostly legacy building, but it’s interesting to look at instances in which he didn’t know that he would be judged. He knew that he would be judged on slavery, but he didn’t know that he would be judged, for example, on [his treatment of Native] Americans. So as Washington was preparing his letters, his documents, he did not take anything out about how he didn’t trust Indians because they couldn’t fundamentally be trusted or how they basically just needed to give up their way of life.
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