Book review: Young Washington: How Wilderness and War Forged America’s Founding Father by Peter Stark (HarperCollins, 2018).
Peter Stark’s account of George Washington during the French and Indian War from 1753 to 1758 offers an entertaining portrait of Washington during those early years of his military career, but he gives us little that is new. Stark, a history and adventure writer, argues that the war and the wilderness helped to improve Washington and make him the leader he later became in the Revolutionary War: “This war and his personal passage through the wilderness laid the groundwork for the great leader that Washington would one day become” (page 5). In Stark’s telling, Washington is forged into maturity by war in the wilderness. His frontier experience leading the Virginia Regiment transforms Washington “from vain, ambitious, self-absorbed youth to the mature and selfless leader he would become” (288-289). His journey through the wilderness and the war puts Washington through “a series of trials,” from which he emerges as “a master of two worlds,” the wilderness and the Tidewater (6).
Stark writes his narrative in the tradition of the Washington “debunkers” (the less than admirable Washington you didn’t know about), such as W.E. Woodward’s George Washington: The Image and the Man (Boni and Liveright, 1926), Bernhard Knollenberg’s Washington and the Revolution: A Reappraisal; Gates, Conway, and the Continental Congress (Macmillan, 1940), and, more recently, Thomas Lewis’s For King and Country: The Maturing of George Washington 1748–1760 (HarperCollins, 1993). Stark tells us that “These pivotal early years of Washington’s life give us a picture much at odds with his popular image” (5). Here is Washington, as described early in the book: “This young Washington is ambitious, temperamental, vain, thin-skinned, petulant, awkward, demanding, stubborn, annoying, hasty, passionate . . . a raw young man struggling toward maturity and in love with a close friend’s wife. This is the Washington of emotional neediness, personal ambition, and mistakes — many mistakes” (5). At various points in the book we find that young Washington “possessed a stubborn doggedness” and could exhibit “an explosive anger” (101); was “ambitious, impetuous, paranoid, and inexperienced in combat” (126); was at one time “In a state of near-hysteria” (305); was “rash,” “impulsive,” and “heedless,” (337); “stormed”; was “constantly complaining” and was “infuriated” (409); was “Powerfully ambitious and self-centered”; had a “flaring temper” (415); and exhibited a “single-minded pursuit of self-interest” (417).
Stark’s book is entertaining, but it is a story, not a history, of Washington’s war on the Virginia and Pennsylvania frontier. There is far too much speculation for the book to be a history. Throughout the book, Stark uses phrases such as: “one imagines,” “may have,” “must have,” “perhaps,” “probably,” “maybe,” “no doubt,” “one pictures,” “surely,” “one senses,” “easy to imagine,” “one can see,” and “imagine.” I counted 96 instances of such words. In a book of 422 pages of narrative text, that averages out to almost one instance of pure speculation every four pages. Also, at times, Washington becomes lost in Stark’s story of the wilderness campaigns and events, hardly appearing at all. And in Chapter 14, Stark makes a strange shift to present tense to narrate the surprise and defeat of General Braddock, perhaps to increase the drama of the story.
Moreover, for someone writing about the life of an eighteenth-century man, Stark seems to lack knowledge of standard eighteenth-century writing practices: at one point, he terms Washington’s complementary closing of a letter to Virginia governor Dinwiddie “an obsequious flourish” (83):
With the Hope of doing it, I, with infinite Pleasure, subscribe myself, Your Honour’s most Obedient, And very humble Servant,
In fact, these types of closings were standard practice at the time and appear commonly throughout Washington’s correspondence for decades. He also notes Washington’s “poor spelling” (188), apparently unaware that many writers in the eighteenth century penned letters with, what we would call today, poor spelling.
Other than Stark’s interesting argument that the wilderness formed (or reformed) Washington’s character, there is little new here. Stark retells a familiar story. Twenty-five years ago, Thomas Lewis wrote For King and Country. Stark tells the same story as Lewis about the same period of Washington’s life, presenting much the same material (with similar themes). Both claim to present the young Washington you did not know. Most modern biographers writing on Washington’s entire life also cover the same events as Stark, but without the debunking theme. Many Washington biographers have shown how the French and Indian War matured Washington and made him a better military leader. It is doubtful if the wilderness itself had the same effect, and Stark does not offer enough convincing evidence to prove his argument on that score.
The book does have very good color illustrations and maps. Stark also provides a bibliography, and he utilizes an array of primary sources. Stark gives the reader fifty-six pages of informative notes, but there is some unevenness. At one point he drops a footnote to tell us that Parson Weems’s story of Washington admitting to chopping down his father’s cherry tree because he could not tell a lie “was apparently concocted — and certainly wildly embellished.” Surely this is something almost every serious reader of history already knows. But on the same page he states that some Washington biographers have called a statement in one of his letters “an outright lie” but provides no sources in his notes (145).
Young Washington is good reading and Stark tells a lively story, but you will learn nothing new (if you have read a biography of Washington).