Memory  /  Q&A

A New Book About George Washington Breaks All the Rules on How to Write About George Washington

A cheeky biography of the first president pulls no punches.
Historic photo of the statue of George Washington as a Greek god before it was moved inside the national capitol.
Viking Press

The book really just jumps up and asks you to pay attention; it’s not a book that you ease into. The preface presents a series of charts, like of the jobs Washington had, or the animals he raised, or the false information that still circulates about him. Other chapters begin with similar infographics. What was your approach to these?

If history is boring, it’s the historian’s fault. Obviously, the title is so provocative; it can get them to pick up the book, but how can I make them feel like they are well equipped to dive into George Washington’s life, the Revolutionary Era, to understand how someone fights for the British Army and ends up leading a rebellion against them? To understand Jefferson, Hamilton, the presidency?

I make these lists for myself [when researching], and it’s sort of like being [with me] in the archives. I wish readers could see everything, and they don’t get to. This is an offering from me to the reader, telling them, “You know how to read this book. You have everything you need to feel as though you’re an expert,”

And so there’s a ton of front matter, as I call it, that really introduces you to Washington as a whole person. We know that he’s the general, but we also have to acknowledge that another title he held was master. We should know that he was very into animals. We should know this his body was amazing not because he had great thighs, but because he survived so many things. There’s front matter in the beginning of the book and then there’s front matter in front of each section and then there are charts and graphs throughout the chapters.

I want this book to be a sort of equalizer and to be fun. History is fun, even when it’s difficult subject matter.

I was interested in your saying that people ask you, “Didn’t you approach Washington with reverence?” And you just didn’t have this reverent posture that previous biographers did. You just thought, “He’s a guy.”

I sometimes think that when Ellis and Chernow and all of these famous Pulitzer-Prize-winning historians were writing a book on Washington, they had to take an oath. Like, “I will write book in the exact same way. I will declare him too marble to be real, and then I will proceed just as the person before me did.”

The reverence jumps off the page. They’re so protective of him and are so impressed by him and his masculinity. I take [his masculinity] as a foregone conclusion. The diseases he survived taught me that, [as did] the war and the way that he was regarded by other people. I just don’t see why historians need to talk about it for pages and pages.