Home / General / “I am sick of the shallow judgment that ranks the worth of a man by his poverty or by his wealth at death”: Visions of the Past, Thanks to Gutenberg (VI)

“I am sick of the shallow judgment that ranks the worth of a man by his poverty or by his wealth at death”: Visions of the Past, Thanks to Gutenberg (VI)

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From almost the beginning of U.S. history to I guess about World War I, American writers and thinkers were obsessed with what it meant to be an American. What made an American an American? Was it the frontier? Was it the homespun speech? The lack of nobility? Underpinning all of this was a huge inferiority complex toward Europe. So you had late 19th century Americans for instance playing up various Native American ruins as equal to those of Europe to give the U.S. an equal claim in the pantheon of civilized nations. Such things were not unique to the United States of course. Many Latin American nations engaged in similar sorts of projects, often using the same themes, such as ruins. In any case, for the United States, the Founding Fathers served as the ultimate touchstone of Americanness. From at least the 1820s, politicians attempted to justify their positions by connecting them to idealized visions of the those men. In the 2010s, Americans do the same thing. Given that these patrician men were often relatively inscrutable, especially George Washington, it’s hardly surprising then that ideas of grounding Americaness found themselves.

Thus you have Henry Van Dyke’s 1906 treatise The Americanism of Washington. In this short book, Van Dyke basically attributes every positive aspect of what it means to be an American to Washington. Most importantly I think for us is what a fundamentally elite text this is. A popular writer of the Gilded Age and good friend of Woodrow Wilson from their days at Princeton, Van Dyke was angry that ideas of authentic American character were often found in poverty, in homespun, and in hard cider. Van Dyke is proud that Washington was wealthy and noted that as a mark in his favor, thus the quote in the title of the post. And in fact, as these things go, this book tells us almost nothing useful about George Washington, but at least a little bit that is useful about the Gilded Age and what it valued in past Americans.

As with most of these texts, this probably isn’t worth your time unless you are interested in the construction of historical memory around the Revolutionary War generation.

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