A new biography of our first president as viewed through the contents of his library.
If any of the Founding Fathers could not be said to have lived "a life in books," it was George Washington (1732-1799), a thoroughly pragmatic man of action. Washington's library was tiny compared to those of scholar-statesmen like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin and emphasized practical knowledge rather than political or social philosophy. Most of the evidence that he actually read the books he owned comes from typographical corrections in his own hand. Marginalia relating to content is extremely rare, and Hayes (Emeritus, English/Univ. of Central Oklahoma; A Journey Through American Literature, 2012, etc.) cites few references in Washington's voluminous correspondence to concepts gleaned from his reading. The author offers much supposition about what Washington may have read and how it might have influenced him, but he marshals discouragingly few facts on the point. As a result, this attempt to illuminate Washington through his reading appears doomed from the start. Nevertheless, Hayes gives it his all, surveying a wide array of books and pamphlets in any way connected to Washington, down to textbooks ordered for his stepson and a treatise on cement. In the process, he displays a winning enthusiasm for these now-obscure 18th-century works. He examines not just their content, but also details about their publishing histories, the craftsmanship of their bindings, and how they were filed on the shelves at Mount Vernon. While much of this amounts to a scholarly accumulation of data that conveys little information about the books' owner, in the process a picture gradually emerges of the literary environment of an average wealthy Virginia planter, primarily interested in improving his plantation and in military matters, with little time for fiction or rarified intellectual pursuits.
More effective as a portrait of the interests of the Colonial planter class than of Washington personally.