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American Literature 75.2 (2003) 247-274

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The Man That Was Used Up:
Poetry, Particularity, and the Politics of Remembering George Washington

Max Cavitch

In the meantime were employed two pretty copious bleedings, a blister was applied to the part affected, two moderate doses of calomel were given, and an injection was administered, which operated on the lower intestines. [It was agreed] to try the result of another bleeding, when about 32 ounces of blood were drawn. . . . Vapours of vinegar and water were frequently inhaled . . . succeeded by repeated doses of emetic tartar . . . with no other effect than a copious discharge from the bowels. The power of life seemed now manifestly yielding to the force of the disorder. . . . Speaking, which was painful from the beginning, now became almost impracticable; respiration grew more and more contracted and imperfect, till half after eleven on Saturday night, retaining the full possession of his intellects—when he expired without a struggle.

—James Craik and Elisha C. Dick, "Gen. Washington's Illness"

The profusion of literary memorials to George Washington in the weeks and months after his death, on 14 December 1799, constitutes the first draft of a work of mourning that is still under revision. Washington continues to symbolize a national cultural process of postrepublican transformation to which he himself contributed pre-posthumously in his Farewell Address. The Address, cowritten with Alexander Hamilton and delivered in 1796, is one of the earliest and most complex statements on the legacy of the eighteenth century's disembodiment of political power in modern nationalism. 1 No person, no body, may in this conceptualization of political tradition interpose itself between citizen-subjects and their self-actualizing [End Page 247] polities. Nevertheless, over two centuries after his near-liquefaction at the hands of well-meaning surgeons, it would seem that Washington's disjecta membra remain touchstones of national subjectivity for many who are otherwise unconscious of or repelled by vestiges of monarchal fetishism in their experience of democratic state sovereignty. 2 Washington's false teeth, bits of his hair, and other personal relics have been circulating among the nation's cultural institutions in honor, recently, of the 200th anniversary of his death and also as part of the continuing effort to assess the visibility and value of his posthumous image in the changing contexts of its manipulation. 3

As contributors to this ongoing work of remembrance, writers of fiction, like so many historians, biographers, and exhibit curators, have sought to portray a Washington more personally compelling than the abstract or monumental figure he commonly strikes; a Washington not yet purged of singularity; a Washington of depth, interiority, even edginess. For example, at one point in Thomas Pynchon's novel, Mason & Dixon, the title characters visit Washington at home, and he invites them to sample Mount Vernon's newest cash crop: a small patch of marijuana he has planted in back. Washington gives signs that he has already done so as he stares deeply into the shiny buttons of Jeremiah Dixon's coat. He also has a vision, which he relates to Charles Mason, of the British surveyor being hunted down and eaten by back-country Presbyterians. Mason is nonplussed. "Ever so kind," he replies, declining the weed, "to imagine for me my death in America." 4

Since Washington's own death, novelists including Cooper, Thackeray, Gertrude Stein, and Gore Vidal have preceded Pynchon in taking up the challenge of imagining Washington's historically oblique character. 5 The novel's special relation to the problem of character may help account for this perennial interest in Washington, the notorious rigidity of whose public persona undoubtedly heightens the appeal of Pynchon's bent depiction. For beyond the superficial satisfactions of irreverence, Pynchon's Washington helps gratify a deeper skepticism that manifests itself in the reiterated need for a Washington who seems close, visible, idiosyncratic. Indeed, this is what modern novels teach us that character should be. Consequently, we tend to reject characterizations that seem flat or idealized.

This novelistic thinking about character is one reason, at least...


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