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Author Interview: William Martin

An interview with William Martin, author of “Citizen Washington:

Open Letters Monthly: First off, welcome! And congratulations on the re-release of “Citizen Washington” in a snazzy new paperback. Even with the success of your Peter Fallon novels, the re-appearance of this book must be gratifying for you – were you expecting it?

William Martin: Whenever one of your books goes out of print, you hope for the day when it returns. A lot of books don’t. I kept bugging my agent to try to re-sell Washington. But he kept saying said, “Wait… wait.” Finally, after the third Peter Fallon novel, The Lost Constitution, became a NY Times best seller, he sold my publishers at Forge my three best out-of-print titles: Annapolis, which was re-pubbed last year, The Rising of the Moon, coming next March, and Citizen Washington, which remains my proudest accomplishment. So it’s very gratifying.

OLM: You should be warned: the hero of your book hasn’t exactly faired well at Open Letters in the past! Twice he’s been brought into the dock, and twice he’s been found exceedingly guilty – first of youthful military incompetence and then of all-around turpitude. In “Citizen Washington” your affection for the historical character of Washington is clear – what attracts you to the man? In the course of your research for the novel, did you find him a divisive character? You’re obviously no hagiographer – how do you balance veneration with accuracy?

WM: Youthful military incompetence? Guilty as charged. He personally lit the fuse for the French and Indian War, then he got himself trapped at the indefensible Fort Necessity, and he was present for the Braddock Massacre. But that first incident revealed a level of aggression that would serve him well later. And at the Braddock Massacre in 1755, one of he most stunning defeats a British army had ever endured, GW was just about the only officer who survived unwounded, despite having half a dozen horses shot out from under him. He learned from his youthful defeats, gained experience, and proved his personal courage. Most young men go through this kind of growth, though seldom do they do it under fire.

All-round turpitude? Whoever is making that charge has his head in his ass. I don’t care if it’s Gore VIdal or Howard Zinn or Marvin Kittman, who created a kind of cottage industry in poking fun at Washington back in the 1970s with book like George Washington’s Expense Account. Washington began life as a grasping, land-hungry young surveyor; in mid-life, he was a man on the make, like most of his upwardly mobile contemporaries; he had a volcanic temper and more than once in big moments, he shifted blame from himself to some unsuspecting underling. But he grew into the general who could win a Revolution and then hand power back to Civil authority. No general before or since has done that. So they set him in stone.

But Washington was a human being. I don’t venerate him. I characterize him. I try to show you the humanity, show you the arc he travels, which makes his achievements all the more impressive. And I purposely chose a fictional detractor (modeled on a real Washington detractor named Benjamin Bache) as the main narrator in the book so that this would not appear to be a hagiography. Of course, my narrator, named Hesperus Draper, changes his opinion as the story unfolds. He has his own character arc.

OLM: Surely in the course of your preparation and writing for this novel, you must have confronted one of the central questions about this character: Why Washington? You mentioned in a recent interview that he was certainly lucky – but what other factors were in play? There was no shortage of possible candidates to fill his position: Charles Lee and Horatio Gates both had at least as much practical field experience, and even Massachusetts’ own Artemus Ward was a capable figure, already leading the New England militia outside Boston in 1775. Why do you think the country turned to him?

WM: Charles Lee was an English soldier-of-fortune. During the 1776 campaign, he wrote that he could do the country wonders if Congress would make him dictator for a while. And he may have given away intelligence to the British during his time as their “prisoner.” And he was finally ordered from the Monmouth battlefield in disgrace by Washington. His ego was bigger than his talent. As for Gates, another Englishman, Washington made him his adjutant, but Gates proved again and again throughout the war that he did not deserve the commands he was given and was never up to the tasks set for him, expect for playing politics behind the scenes. And Artemus War was simply too New England.

In 1775, John Adams understood that for this Continental Army to be truly continental, it could not be comprised entirely of New England officers and men. So he nominated Washington, one of the leading men of the largest colony, Virginia, an American-born man with military experience (though largely in defeat), youth (he was only forty-four), and the willingness to fight (he had come to the Second Continental Congress in a military uniform). It was the right choice, though Adams sometimes wondered in the eight years of blood and thunder and frustration that followed.

OLM: “Citizen Washington” is a tapestry of viewpoints – the story is told from the perspectives of many characters, ranging from slaves to Martha Washington to fellow Founding Fathers like Hamilton. This seems almost like an admission on your part that Washington himself can only be seen through a prism – that the man himself might be unknowable. During your research, did you find yourself coming up against Douglas Southall Freemans’ famous “Great Wall of Washington”?

WM: I decided on the prismatic approach because I did not want to be writing as an omniscient narrator. I did not want to go inside Washington’s head. I also wanted this book to be a portrait of GW’s world. Having twelve narrators, some real, some fictional, allowed me to scale the “Great Wall,” and get pretty close to GW.

OLM: There’s quite a bit of dialect and earthy humor in “Citizen Washington” – more, it seems to me, than in any of your other books. Was that just a reflection of the primary sources you were reading, or did you do it in part to counter-act the marble-bust ‘remote from human’ affect that even some of Washington’s contemporaries mentioned?

WM: Both. And some characters just cry out for the kind of language that, say, Hesperus Draper offers along the way. When he describes the New England weather in November as just about “as ugly as the ass-hole on a high-tailed dog,” he’s not saying something that I read in any primary sources, but it’s the way that he would express himself. Accurate, earthy, and pretty funny. One thing is for certain, there are no marble busts in this book. I, and the reader would be bored shitless.

OLM: At one point you have a character say, “But remember about Washington – even when he looked like he was beaten, he never quit.” The prosecution would say he couldn’t quit because the alternative was a prompt hanging at the end of a British rope, that once he was committed he had no choice but to see the thing through. How does the defense respond?

WM: Endurance takes many forms. Washington never hid his head. He never ran from his leadership responsibilities. And he kept looking for ways to turn his fortunes and the nation’s. Trenton is the perfect example. He could have stayed on the other side of the Delaware. He might have sat there all winter and waited to see what spring would bring. That would have been a kind of endurance, but passive endurance. Instead, he struck. He won at Trenton, then he won at Princeton, and the Revolution turned from sure failure to hope in the space of ten days.

OLM: One historian describes the victory at Yorktown as “a miracle made actual.” You’ve written a novel about and a documentary about Washington: what’s your take on that miracle? If the French hadn’t been available – or hadn’t arrived when they did – how do you think the Revolution would have progressed?

WM: Without the French, we would not have won the American Revolution. Their work at Yorktown, delivering the siege guns and troops on land and winning the Battle of the Virginia Capes at sea made the victory possible. Without the French, I think the Revolution would have devolved into a guerrilla war (Washington had talked about hiding out in the western mountains and fighting from there). But I think the American people – and don’t forget, thirty percent of them were just sitting on the fence, waiting to see who would win – would have tired of it and returned to the royal fold.

OLM: Finally, was he Flexner’s “indispensable man”?

WM: It’s simple. If you took away any of the men (and it was all men, at least in public) who helped to give birth to the American Republic between 1775 and 1799, you would probably have ended up with the same result… except for Washington. He was the keystone to the arch. He held the army together when the nation had no other institution to identify itself by. And he held the infant government together when Jefferson and Hamilton lined up for their debates and disagreements over how the government should look. Indispensable.


One Comment »

  • J C WATSON says:

    Not since reading Howard Fast’s April Morning in the early ’60s have I been so fascinated by America’s beginning story.
    Having grown up in Watertown, Massachusetts I am so very familiar with so many places where Washington actually lived, went to church and took command of the troops under the elm tree on Cambridge Common.
    Loved the book Bill. Thanks for writing it.

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