Media commentator Shirley (Citizen Newt: The Making of a Reagan Conservative, 2017, etc.) confronts the problem faced by all of Mary Ball Washington’s biographers: lack of material.
“Much of her life was a mystery,” writes the author, leaving him to speculate about her personality, appearance, beliefs, and especially her relationship with her eldest son, George. “Was she part helicopter mother, part ‘Mommie Dearest,’ ” he asks, using popular, if anachronistic, allusions, “or was she a saint and a joy for George? Historians down through the years have portrayed her as both.” Shirley looks to several earlier historians for their conclusions, making his biography “just as much a historiography of Mary Washington as it is a history.” Those historians, though, also worked with scant evidence, and their portraits were shaped by their own assumptions about how Colonial women must have, or should have, behaved as wives, mothers, and citizens. Hagiographical portraits depicted Mary as “the grandmother and redeemer of America” while one of Washington’s early biographers portrayed Mary as an ardent Loyalist, fiercely opposed to the Revolution. Shirley finds a sympathetic reading in Nancy Byrd Turner’s The Mother of Washington (1930), to which he frequently refers. He dismisses Marion Harland’s Story of Mary Washington, published in 1893, as being so hagiographical that it “glossed over” the death of Mary’s infant daughter “as if it was a distraction to the grand character of Mary and her relationship to her children.” Shirley thinks that Mary “must have been beside herself” because of the “inseparable and deeply unique connection between mother and daughter.” However, neither historian knows for sure. Throughout, Shirley guesses what Mary probably, might have, or perhaps felt. Although he draws on archival material from the papers of George Washington, the resources of the Mary Ball Washington House, and many biographies of Washington, at best, he offers more about Mary’s times—likely familiar to readers of Colonial history—than details of her life.
A well-meaning but frustrated attempt to pierce the veil of history.