- Historic Sites
Mason Weems, Bibliopolist
To mark the birthdays of our two great Presidents, a new look at the legends that surround their memory … An admiring re-appraisal of the Cherry Tree Fable and its author, by Garry Wills , together with the Curious Story of Abraham Lincoln’s Lost Love Letters, by Don E. Fehrenbacher
February/march 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 2
Though Weems strove for a more dignified carriage in the books he wrote for publication, something of his letters’ dash and enthusiasm is evident there as well. Surely no one ever preached in a more swashbuckling way the evils of dueling: “The next morning would have seen him on the field, and, in language lately heard in this state, calling out to his hated antagonist, You. have injured me, sir, beyond reconciliation, and by God, I’ll kill you if I can . While his antagonist, in a style equally musical and Christian, rejoins, Kill and be damned! Pop go the pistols—down tumbles one of the combatants; while the murderer with knocking knees and looks of Cain, flies from the avenger of blood!” Before movies and television, that was as vivid a “shoot-out” as one could get, short of the real thing.
There is a cinematic vigor, too, in the picture of the beaten English leaving New York: “Then all in a moment they fly to work. Some, seizing the ready handspikes, vault high upon the windlasses, thence coming down all at once with the Yo-heave-O, they shake the sounding decks and tear from their dark oozy beds the ponderous anchors. Others, with halyards hard strained through the creaking blocks, sway aloft the wide-extended yards, and spread their canvas to the gale, which, with increasing freshness, bears the broad-winged ships in foam and thunder through the waves.”
If his prose was always more lively than dignified, Weems’s causes were good ones, ardently promoted, courageously disseminated. He opposed slavery, gambling, alcohol, dueling, and tobacco in a Virginia that honored every item in the list. Weems was a natural educator, who advocated school for girls as well as boys and hated the schoolmaster’s rod. And while there is no questioning his rather frothy sincerity, this preacher was no prude. After writing a tract that favored premarital chastity and calling it Hymen’s Recruit , Weems complained when the book was badly packed for shipping: “The Hymens [are] so rammed and jammed that I’m sure the nests of Love will hardly ever again be got into shipshape.”
Even the stories that have become unctuous in later retellings had an innovative touch in Weems’s first version. The most important instance of this is the most famous tale—that of the cherry tree. This is almost always printed in a severely truncated form, which destroys its point. The moral, aimed at children, becomes: Never tell a lie. But that was not Weems’s moral. The story occurs in a chapter that praises Washington’s father for his enlightened educational methods, and it opens with a long prologue. When ‘y George asks his father about children’s lying, the father emphasizes a parent’s duty in this matter: “At least you shall never, from me, have cause to be guilty of so shameful a thing. Many parents, indeed, even compel their children to this vile practice, by barbarously berating them for every little fault; hence, on the next offence, the little terrified creature slips out a lie just to escape the rod. But as to yourself, George, you know I have always told you, and now tell you again, that whenever by accident you do anything wrong—which must often be the case, as you are but a poor little boy yet, without experience or knowledge—never tell a falsehood to conceal it; but come bravely up, my son, like a little man, and tell me of it and, instead of beating you, George, I will but the more honor and love you for it, my dear.” Even the terms of endearment, which sound sticky to modern ears, were part of the Weems attack on harsh upbringing and readiness to use the rod.
After young Washington, with one unconsidered stroke of his hatchet, “barks” the “beautiful young English cherry tree…—the tree is not actually chopped down in Weems—he can tell his father about it because he is not terrified at the consequences of the truth. The conclusion of the tale makes it clear that the hero is Washington’s father , who teaches a lesson to parents: “‘Run to my arms, you dearest boy,’ cried his father in transports, ‘run to my arms. Glad am I, George, that you killed my tree; for you have paid me for it a thousandfold. Such an act of heroism in my son is worth more than a thousand trees, though blossomed with silver and their fruits of purest gold.’ It was in this way, by interesting at once both his heart and head, that Mr. Washington conducted George with great ease and pleasure along the happy paths of virtue.” Parents who have tried to enforce truthfulness on children with this tale, instead of taking to heart its message against compulsion, not only miss the point but reverse it. De te fabula narratur …
Unlike Billy Graham or Fulton Sheen, Weems first had to create his medium, and even his audience, before manipulating them. He trudged from church to church, fair to fair, going straight from the pulpit to his book cart, or waiting for cockfights to break up. He was a market sampler, an author’s agent, a publisher’s scout. He tested products, varied them, repackaged them. His own Life of Washington grew from unsuccessful attempts to sell John Marshall’s indigestible five volumes.