George Washington’s Bookshelf and the Founding of the Novel

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| By Eric Bargeron, Layman Poupard Publishing |

President’s Day was established in 1968 to celebrate the birthday of George Washington, America’s first chief executive, hailed for his military leadership and his abilities as a statesman. He was a man of action, but John Adams, a bit of a snob, thought Washington was “too illiterate, unlearned, unread for his station and reputation.” Maybe he was misinformed. As the curators at Mount Vernon point out, there is good evidence that that Washington was given, at times when he wasn’t fighting wars, crafting the Constitution, or performing his presidential duties, to quiet contemplation, when he might have nurtured sophisticated literary tastes. By the time of his death, Washington had accumulated a library of over 900 books, 33% of which were about politics, economics, and the law; 14% were about religion and philosophy (though there was no Bible in an early catalog of his library compiled in 1783, he did buy one for his wife, Martha); and 14% about agriculture.

Nine percent, or about eighty books in Washington’s library, were works of popular fiction, plays, or poetry. The novel was still a new and developing genre in the eighteenth century, and Washington’s bookshelf featured some of the most important contributions to the development of the form, including Don Quixote (1605, 1615) by Spanish master Miguel Cervantes—Washington bought his copy at the suggestion of Benjamin Franklin on 17 September 1787, the day the Constitutional Convention ended. A book about the adventures of an old man who goes insane from reading too much, it was published in two parts, in 1605 and 1615. While the first part is often thought of as a parody of chivalric romance, the second part is a self-referential work that involves the reader in an examination of literature itself.

Like Don Quixote, most of the novels in Washington’s library were picaresques, a form that features the episodic, and frequently bawdy, adventures of a roguish protagonist who improves his lot in life by his wits. These include Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane (parts 1 and 2,1715; part 3, 1724; part 4,1735), by Frenchman Alain-René Lesage, translated into English in 1766 by eighteenth-century novelist Tobias Smollett, a book that traces the checkered education of a young man who rises from cunning servant to nobleman; Tobias Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), an epistolary novel  about the travels of a misanthrope and his party through the lower levels of English society; Gulliver’s Travels, (1726) a satire by Englishman Jonathan Swift that depicts Lemuel Gulliver’s journeys to strange lands, with each unusual locale presenting an opportunity to explore different aspects of human nature; and The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling(1794-95) by Englishman Henry Fielding, which narrates the life and changing fortunes of the title character, from his abandoned, illegitimate childhood to fortune and social status.

When it comes to poetry and drama, Washington bought such classics as The Lyric Works of Horace translated by John Parke (1786) and owned a volume of the plays and poems of William Shakespeare. He also had a taste for more modern works. His collection included The Carmelite (1784), a “Gothic tragedy” by English playwright Richard Cumberland; Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786), the first formal publication of Scottish poet Robert Burns; and American Joel Barlow’s nine-book epic poem The Vision of Columbus (1787). Barlow, a patriot who served in the Continental Army and later undertook diplomatic missions on behalf of the US government, was also intent on creating a distinctly American literary canon. In The Vision of Columbus, an angel appears to Columbus and guides him through the history of the new world, from the settlement of colonial lands, through the American revolution, to a future in which science and philosophy will shape a prosperous and harmonious future, with all the peoples of North and South America united into one nation.

We cannot know if his time spent with Cervantes taught Washington not to tilt at windmills, if his encounter with Swift’s Lilliputians reinforced his disdain for party politics, or if he saw the future of the United States in Tom Jones’s rise from obscurity to prosperity. But it is good to remember that America’s founders were readers, and that good leaders have traditionally maintained good libraries and made use of them. Those who are interested in exploring these and other works should log on to Gale’s Eighteenth-Century Collections Online, which contains the full text of over 180,000 titles. And if you want to read more about the specific works that informed President Washington’s thought, entries on all of them appear in the Literature Criticism Series and Literature Criticism Online.



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