Welcome to the first Friday Finds: where I share mostly book recommendations (or recommendations of other cool things I’ve come across). For this week I wanted to chat about American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. This book came out in 2008 and it’s a novel inspired by the life of the former first lady Laura Bush. A friend of mine handed me the book when I visited York recently and while I was initially a bit unsure – I have no particular interest in Laura Bush and I don’t read a lot of political biographies or autobiographies – once I started it, I was totally swept away. It reminded me more of a sweeping 19th century novel – something like Anna Karenina maybe – that encompasses a coming-of-age story, explorations and reflections on love and marriage, a good bit of melodrama and tragedy, a smattering of politics, and a whole lot else in between.Continue reading
‘Within the colonies, within families, there was division. There were loyalists and patriots living within the same house. This was a civil war.’ – Alexis Coe on the American Revolution
A few weeks ago, I posted my review of Episode One of Washington, the History Channel’s new documentary series about America’s first president: George Washington. Today we’re talking Episode Two (‘Rebel Commander’) and Three (‘Father of His Country’). I’d recommend having a read of that first blog post if you want to know more general information about the series: who they interview, the format etc. I’ll be chatting more here about specific things I enjoyed about these last two episodes and things I wish they’d done differently.
Firstly, the stuff I liked!
1 – Nicholas Rowe is much better in these last two episodes
Scottish stage actor Nicholas Rowe portrays Washington in the live-action reenactments that the show uses to dramatize Washington’s life. These scenes are woven throughout the interview clips with historians, biographers, and politicians. I had some complaints about Rowe in Episode 1, where he failed to convince as the charming younger Washington who was meant to dazzle all the ladies, but he does a much better job playing the older, resolute General under stress. I especially liked his understated delivery of the orders to go and find Benedict Arnold, after he learns of Arnold’s betrayal. Rowe looks ready to scream but then says with a quiet fury: Go. Get him. Now. I got chills.
2 – Really gets across how difficult it was for Americans to win the Revolutionary War
It’s impossible to overstate now how crazy it was for a handful of disparate colonies to take on the world’s great superpower of the time. There was no guarantee that the Americans would win and, in fact, quite the opposite. Lots of people, quite reasonably, thought they would surely lose and did not support the rebellion. And, as Alexis Coe points out in the quote at the start of this post, there were often loyalists and patriots in the same family! The British army and navy were the best in the world, and the colonies literally had no army until the Continental Congress decided to try and make one. Washington’s struggle to whip these non-professional soldiers into shape, to keep their spirits up, to get supplies, to prevent mutiny, all while trying to fight the best army in the world is all conveyed well in the show.
I especially liked the scene when the British army arrives in New York in 1776 and the New Yorkers, and rebel army, look out and see all the warships. King George wanted to intimidate the colonists and he sent the largest British expeditionary force to ever be assembled. When the New Yorkers saw all the impressive warships amassing in their harbor, they were all like…shit. I remember reading an account of the time from a guy in New York who looked out over the harbor and said: ‘It looked like all of London was afloat.’ So Washington did well to highlight that moment.
3 – Also conveys how Washington set the precedent for Presidential behavior
Winning a Revolution is just step one. Then you need to establish a new government which will not devolve into a new kind of tyranny. Washington makes it clear how important it was that Washington himself did not become an emperor or a tyrant, but rather stepped down after two presidential terms. It argues that he didn’t even really want to be president in the first place, but took the job because he was a national war hero and people loved him. He wanted to be at home in Virginia. But there was nobody else who could take that role (John Adams certainly had a rough time as the second U.S President). The show makes it clear how the republic could have failed, if we didn’t have someone like Washington at the helm in those fragile, early days.
Now, for stuff I didn’t like so much…
1 – So much Benedict Arnold stuff
The story of Benedict Arnold is inherently interesting (spy craft, intrigue, betrayal etc.). And maybe it’s just because I’m pretty familiar with the story already, but I felt that we had too much of a focus on this, purely for the sake of drama. The second episode actually ends on an Arnold related cliffhanger. I think you need to make mention of Arnold, a continental officer who was secretly helping the British, but felt the amount of time devoted to this whole saga was kind of excessive.
I also felt that the amount of focus on Hamilton was a little excessive. I’m guessing it’s because of his fame from the popular musical, but I was more okay with this than the Arnold stuff, because at least Hamilton was Washington’s second in command and always with Washington during the war.
2 – ‘Can I offer you some water?’
Okay, so this is a pedantic point, but there’s a scene during one of the reenactments when Washington is meeting with one of British General Howe’s top officers and Washington offers him ‘ale or water’? I’m already skeptical that he would offer him ale. That’s something people would have in a casual tavern, probably not what a General would drink with a high ranking British officer at a formal meeting though. I’m guessing they would drink wine like Madeira (yay!) or maybe sack (a fortified white wine from Spain)? Or port? But even if he did offer him ale, he definitely wouldn’t have offered him water! Water wasn’t sanitary to drink during this time and only those who could afford nothing else would drink it. If I was that British officer guy, I would have been super insulted if the American General offered me water. I would have been like: ‘No, I don’t want your crappy sewer water! Geez, you guys are a lot worse off than I thought.’
3 – The level of violence was unnecessary
I’m not one to shrink from too much violence onscreen, but context is important and this is the sort of documentary series that could easily be shown in schools etc. (there are so many legit historians interviewed in it), if not for the overly graphic moments of violence. I was okay with this in Episode One, but it started to grate on me in Episodes Two and Three. We have another scalping in Episode Three, and a tarring and feathering. While this level of violence works great in the HBO John Adams miniseries (which also shows a tarring and feathering), it felt out of place here in an otherwise pretty sanitized, educational production. The moments of violence stand out as unnecessary.
Those are just a few thoughts I had on Episodes Two and Three. Overall, I found these episodes less engaging than Episode One, but that might have been because I was more familiar with the information in them. But still the balance of reenactment to interview works pretty well, the production quality of the reenactments is overall fairly high (despite Martha Washington’s awful wig in the last few scenes) and I liked how they wove in information about slavery throughout too.
I’d be curious to know what you thought of Episodes Two or Three, or indeed of the entire series? Did you learn anything new about Washington’s life? What did you think of the format: reenactment mixed with interviews? I don’t know much about Washington’s life so I’m especially curious to know if there’s anything you think Washington got wrong? Let me know!
(Today’s featured image is Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze (1851), acceded via the Wikimedia Commons. I was actually fortunate enough to see this image in person at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC and it was breathtaking. The real painting is enormous and you can see all the colors of dawn. And, of course, Washington wouldn’t have stood like that. It would have tipped over the boat. But it’s still a great painting!)
‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!