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First Among Men

George Washington and the Myth of American Masculinity

Maurizio Valsania

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Dispelling common myths about the first US president and revealing the real George Washington.

George Washington—hero of the French and Indian War, commander in chief of the Continental Army, and first president of the United States—died on December 14, 1799. The myth-making began immediately thereafter, and the Washington mythos crafted after his death remains largely intact. But what do we really know about Washington as an upper-class man?

Washington is frequently portrayed by his biographers as America at its unflinching best: tall, shrewd, determined, resilient, stalwart, and tremendously…

Dispelling common myths about the first US president and revealing the real George Washington.

George Washington—hero of the French and Indian War, commander in chief of the Continental Army, and first president of the United States—died on December 14, 1799. The myth-making began immediately thereafter, and the Washington mythos crafted after his death remains largely intact. But what do we really know about Washington as an upper-class man?

Washington is frequently portrayed by his biographers as America at its unflinching best: tall, shrewd, determined, resilient, stalwart, and tremendously effective in action. But this aggressive and muscular version of Washington is largely a creation of the nineteenth century. Eighteenth-century ideals of upper-class masculinity would have preferred a man with refined aesthetic tastes, graceful and elegant movements, and the ability and willingness to clearly articulate his emotions. At the same time, these eighteenth-century men subjected themselves to intense hardship and inflicted incredible amounts of violence on each other, their families, their neighbors, and the people they enslaved. In First Among Men: George Washington and the Myth of American Masculinity, Valsania considers Washington's complexity and apparent contradictions in three main areas: his physical life (often bloody, cold, injured, muddy, or otherwise unpleasant), his emotional world (sentimental, loving, and affectionate), and his social persona (carefully constructed and maintained). In each, he notes, the reality diverges from the legend quite drastically. Ultimately, Valsania challenges readers to reconsider what they think they know about Washington.

Aided by new research, documents, and objects that have only recently come to light, First Among Men tells the fascinating story of a living and breathing person who loved, suffered, moved, gestured, dressed, ate, drank, and had sex in ways that may be surprising to many Americans. In this accessible, detailed narrative, Valsania presents a full, complete portrait of Washington as readers have rarely seen him before: as a man, a son, a father, and a friend.

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First Among Men

Maurizio Valsania

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Reviews

This is an extraordinary book. Grand biographies of the famously opaque Washington often justify themselves by claiming to make him somehow more knowable; here's a book that actually succeeds in doing that. Valsania's intimate portrait of this elite eighteenth-century Virginian provides a fresh and convincing interpretation of a warrior-politician whose very humanity was long ago lost in the weeds of heroic poetry and overblown prose that continues to entrap many of his modern chroniclers.

Using his unique perspective and skillset, Maurizio Valsania has cracked the marble shell that encases George Washington to reveal the real man—flesh and blood, passion and emotion, mind and body. This essential book will excite scholars and the public alike with a new view of the greatest Founder of the United States.

Drawing on physical evidence, personal letters, and cultural studies, First Among Men strips off the nineteenth-century myth to reveal the eighteenth-century Virginia gentleman that George Washington modeled and his contemporaries saw. Valsania's Washington is strong and sensitive; firm and flirtatious; benevolent gentry and brutal slaveholder.

In First Among Men, Maurizio Valsania rescues George Washington from the nineteenth-century gaze, restoring his body to eighteenth-century proportions. In the process, Valsania brilliantly illuminates the shifting nature of virility and gentility in American culture. With fresh analysis and vivid examples, he shows us Washington and much more, including the first president's social world.

Compulsively readable and elegantly written, First Among Men employs scientific method to illumine Washington's corporeal intelligence and physical presence. Valsania is to be congratulated. His innovative historical biography casts fascinating light on the first President at home and at war, as horseman and dancer, as Virginia colonist and as American patriot.

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Book Details

Release Date
Publication Date
Status
Preorder
Trim Size
6
x
9
Pages
416
ISBN
9781421444475
Illustration Description
25 b&w photos, 16 b&w illus.
Table of Contents

Chapter 1. The American Giant
Part I: Physical
Chapter 2. Testing Himself
Chapter 3. A Taste for Cruelty and War
Chapter 4. A Body in Pain
Chapter 5. Checking the Body
Part II: Emotional
Chapter 6. The Love

Chapter 1. The American Giant
Part I: Physical
Chapter 2. Testing Himself
Chapter 3. A Taste for Cruelty and War
Chapter 4. A Body in Pain
Chapter 5. Checking the Body
Part II: Emotional
Chapter 6. The Love Letters
Chapter 7. The Meaning of Love (and Marriage)
Chapter 8. A Sentimental Male
Chapter 9. A Maternal Father
Part III: Social
Chapter 10. A Person of Fine Manners
Chapter 11. The Message of His Clothing
Chapter 12. Astride the Great Stage
Chapter 13. Consummation
Chapter 14. Giants Die as Well

Author Bio
Maurizio Valsania
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Maurizio Valsania

Maurizio Valsania (CHAPEL HILL, NC) is a professor of American history at the University of Turin. He is the author of Jefferson's Body: A Corporeal Biography.