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New in Paperback: Citizen Washington

Citizen Washington

by William Martin

Forge, 2011

 

At one point in1777, Continental Congress delegate John Adams struck a typically testy note:

I have been distressed to see some members of this house disposed to idolise an image which their own hands have molten. I speak here of the superstitious veneration that is sometimes paid to General Washington. Altho’ I honour him for his good qualities, yet in this house I feel myself his Superior.

Adams was a smart man in very smart company, but his objection bordered on dimwitted even at the time he made it, and two centuries of American ascendency have made his comparison seem almost ludicrous. Even at his most prescient, Adams could hardly have foreseen the incredible extent of the veneration that would over the generations elevate Washington to a stratosphere occupied by no other figure in American history. His size, his seriousness, his placid, unmoving statesmanship – these things have loomed ever larger as succeeding generations have required them, and the man’s swarming multitudes of faults have receded so far into the background that even practiced historians can find it easy to overlook them.

He’s made fine meat for those historians over the years, but the same granite ponderousness that made him so unaccountable to his peers has largely made him tough for novelists to grasp. More than one has attempted the feat only to retreat before what seems at times like a complete absence of the inner man. Arthur Pier’s 1940 novel The Young Man from Mount Vernon is often distressingly hymnal; the hilarious lampoon of Washington in Thomas Pynchon’s great 1997 novel Mason & Dixon is one of the comic highlights of the book, but it’s over pretty quick. The Washington who emerges from Christian Cameron’s powerful 2001 novel Washington and Caesar is a deeply flawed figure with his sins piled high. Always, the true man seems just out of reach.

To this small roster of partial successes now comes what may just be the best historical novel ever written about George Washington: William Martin’s Citizen Washington, here given a pretty new reprint by Forge. Every American reader who’s ever taken a vacation to any ocean or large body of water will be familiar with Martin for his two seminal vacation novels, Back Bay and Cape Cod, which were expertly weaving historical mysteries with present-day action back when Dan Brown was first mumbling the words to Make Way for Ducklings. In Citizen Washington, Martin eschews his familiar formula of threading a plot through the centuries to the present day; instead, he gives us a straightforward historical novel, and it’s one hell of an achievement.

He’s chosen to narrate the familiar events of Washington’s life (and one event that will be less familiar, the hint of an extramarital affair the great man may have had) through a multiplicity of viewpoints, from a Washington estate slave to John and Abigail Adams to Alexander Hamilton to Martha Washington herself. We get the same old tales of the prosperous Virginia planter, the ambitious officer in the King’s service, the seemingly reluctant General of the fledgling American army, the President who strove to be above party politics – but every stage of the hero’s career is brought vividly to life through the expert deployment of all these different narrators (the device also allows Martin to run blissfully riot with what has always been one of his greatest strengths as a writer: his pitch-perfect ability to summon different personalities through dialogue alone), as when the sober Joseph Reed relates one of the generals signal PR coups:

The following day, we were informed that General Howe wished a letter to be delivered to Washington. So Colonel Knox and I were rowed out to meet the barge bearing the missive, under strict orders not to receive it unless it were properly addressed.

It was a fine, sunny afternoon, with a southwesterly breeze setting up a decent chop on the harbor. At our approach, the British officer, dressed in the dark blue of the Royal Navy, stood and bowed with great ceremony. We were obliged, out of politeness, to do the same, however difficult in our rocking cutter.

The British officer then informed us of a letter for Mr. Washington.

“Sir,” I said, “we have no person in our army with that address.”

“But, sir,” answered the officer, “will you look at the address?” He then withdrew the letter from his pocket and held it for the both of us to inspect: “To George Washington, Esq., Etc., Etc., New York.”

I put on my most lawyerly air and said, “I cannot receive that letter, sir.”

Martin’s Washington himself barely offers a single word about his internal state at any point in the novel, but he’s endlessly dissected and speculated and conjectured by all those around him, and in the end that’s somehow far more satisfying than the “Today I took control of the Continental Army” route a less confident novelist might have taken.

When the day is done, Martin is a fairly flagrant Washington partisan, finding in him a figurehead who somehow managed to be just what the new nation most needed. During the broiling-hot chaos surrounding the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse, one character does his best to explain:

Lee might well have died. He thought he’d made the right decision, retreatin’. And Washington was doin’ exactly what Lee had planned to do – rally on good ground, hold, volley, and fall back to the main body. But after his retreat from the courthouse, I don’t think Lee could have rallied those men for a night in a tavern.

You see, there’s many kinds of leadership. Lee led by complaint, blame, sarcasm, and self-importance. Washington led the same way sometimes, but on the battlefield, he rode a white horse, and Lee just kept on bein’ Lee.

Readers who look to Martin for fast-paced thrillers (like his particularly effective City of Dreams) may have hesitated to test the purely historical waters of Citizen Washington when it first appeared a decade ago. Those same readers – and anybody interested in the events and actors who made the United States – are urged not to miss this novel in its latest incarnation. There’s a crackling good story at the heart of this book, no matter how much I myself would have preferred Citizen Adams.