Colonial Revivals and American Culture, 1876–1986
By Karal Ann Marling; Harvard University Press; 445 pages.
George Washington has been the constant figure in American life since the day he became President. In a witty, irreverent look at how Americans have viewed the father of our country, Karal Ann Marling traces Washington in our culture from 1876, the date of the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, to the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan recalled erroneously our nation’s first leader praying on his knees in the snows of Valley Forge.
Washington is a symbol of unity in an often divided society, and he has been since the Civil War. Marling shows him as a lover and a poet in the 1901 play Washington and the Lady and as the very model of the modern man in advertisements from the 1920s. His idealized rural boyhood was the blueprint for a generation of politicians; Herbert Hoover used it in the election of 1928. Following World War II Washington became a pop idol; today he serves both as an automobile salesman and as the benevolent patriarch who beckons us to sales in February.
Marling has pursued Washington from Mount Vernon to the Super Bowl and through flea markets to meetings of the D.A.R. She has found him in historical romances, in Hollywood epics, and on pin trays; his influence extends to furniture design and national pageantry, to flatware and modern art. The remarkable illustrations are varied and well integrated into the text. Combining historical analysis with art history and cultural criticism, Marling has provided a lively new view of a hero turned into an icon.