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Most modern biographers of George Washington have paid scant attention to the impact of Ferry Farm, where Washington spent much of his childhood, on the life of the Founding Father. Historian Philip Levy shows us why biographers should pay it more heed. Biographers, when they took note of Ferry Farm, often asserted that it helped make Washington, but, Levy argues, “In truth, Washington made Ferry Farm” (p. 65). Levy shows how the man, and the legends about him, made the place.
Levy’s overall goal is to explore Washington’s childhood stories through the lens of Ferry Farm. His chapters, which by Levy’s own description are “interconnected essays” rather than a single narrative, illuminate the meanings of those stories in different ways (p. 20). He divides his book into two parts. The first three chapters deal with the historical understanding of Washington’s childhood and Ferry Farm. In the next three, Levy considers the Washington childhood narratives that rest more on memory and folklore.
His first chapter, based on a study of more than 150 biographies, explores how the narrative of Washington’s childhood, the least-documented part of his life, was shaped over the years by his biographers. In his next chapter, Levy focuses on a single document: Washington’s 1771 survey of Ferry Farm. Washington never made a map from his survey notes, and historians have taken little note of this document; nevertheless, Levy argues that it has much to tell us about Washington’s relationship to Ferry Farm. He asserts that the survey is “a personal narrative of place that Washington fashioned for himself alone” and that it offers us “a hidden narrative of Washington’s formative years” (pp. 21–22, 89). “The survey,” Levy points out, “is the longest written narrative of any kind linking Washington and the landscape of Ferry Farm” (p. 65).
In the book’s third chapter, Levy looks at what over a dozen years of archaeological excavation on the Washington home lot at Ferry [End Page 277] Farm can tell us about Washington’s childhood and how it modifies narratives of his early years. The diggings at Ferry Farm have revealed the types of structures in the Washington home lot, given us insights into the lives of enslaved people living there, uncovered clues to the Washingtons’ diet, and disclosed the design of the Washington house. Unlike biography, archaeology, Levy points out, reveals what was most typical, rather than exceptional, about Washington’s background.
Moving to memory, Levy focuses his fourth chapter on Mason Locke Weems, Washington’s first biographer and the inventor of the most enduring myth about Washington’s childhood at Ferry Farm, the cherry tree. Weems, Levy asserts, created “an enduring association between Washington, a place, and a single iconic cherry tree.” The association came to define the man’s childhood and Ferry Farm. Levy looks at the meaning that association had for many Americans and concludes that Weems’s “invention took root with more effect than any actual Washington story ever could have” (p. 166).
The fifth chapter tells the interesting story of how an 1870s farm office at Ferry Farm was later presented as George Washington’s surveying office. The office, Levy explains, became a stand-in for all the vanished buildings of Washington’s Ferry Farm and an imagined link to Washington’s youthful career as a surveyor. In his final chapter, Levy looks at the stories of Washington’s childhood and Ferry Farm in light of climate change, examining the interrelationship between climate change, historical preservation, and museums.
All of Levy’s chapters are well sourced; the book has forty-two pages of notes that demonstrate his command of his topic. Although Levy’s book is not a traditional historical narrative, it nevertheless is a must-read for all those desiring to understand the earliest years of Washington’s life and know more about the place where that life was lived. [End Page 278]