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Parson Weems

Portrait of Parson Weems

Mason Locke Weems (October 11, 1759 – May 23, 1825), generally known as Parson Weems, was an American book agent and author. He was the source of some of the The Life of Washington (1800), a bestseller that depicted Washington's virtues and was intended to provide a morally instructive tale for the youth of the young nation.[1]

Contents

  • Biography 1
  • Influence and historical reliability 2
    • The exaltation of Washington 2.1
    • The cherry-tree anecdote 2.2
  • Cultural references 3
  • Notes 4
  • Sources 5
  • Further reading 6
  • External links 7

Biography

Bel Air Plantation, where Weems and his family moved upon the death of his father-in-law, Col. Jesse Ewell, in 1805

Weems was born on October 11, 1759, in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. He studied theology in London and was ordained in the Protestant Episcopal Church in 1784. He worked as a minister in Maryland in various capacities from 1784 to 1792. Financial hardship forced Weems to seek additional employment, and he began working as a traveling book agent. Weems married Frances Ewell in 1795 and established a household in Dumfries, Virginia. He had a small bookstore in Dumfries that now houses the Weems–Botts Museum, but he continued to travel extensively, selling books and preaching.[2]

Dumfries is not far from Augustine had worshiped in pre-Revolutionary days. Weems would later inflate this Washington connection and promote himself as the former "rector of Mount-Vernon parish".

Other notable works by Weems include Life of General Francis Marion (1805); Life of Benjamin Franklin, with Essays (1817); and Life of William Penn (1819). He was an accomplished violinist.

After the death of his father-in-law, Colonel Jessie Ewell (1743 - 1805), Weems assumed the Ewell family estate, Bel Air, located in Prince William County, Virginia, to partially satisfy debts owed to Weems. In 1808, Weems and his family moved into Bel Air, where he lived until his death. While on travel in Beaufort, South Carolina, Weems died on May 23, 1825 of unspecified causes. He is buried at Bel Air.[3]

Influence and historical reliability

The New York Times has described Weems as one of the "early hagiographers" of American literature "who elevated the Swamp Fox, [4]

Weems' name would probably be forgotten today were it not for the tension between the liveliness of his narratives and what Appletons' Cyclopaedia of American Biography (1889) called "this charge of a want of veracity [that] is brought against all Weems's writings," adding that "it is probable he would have accounted it excusable to tell any good story to the credit of his heroes." The cherry-tree anecdote illustrates this point. Another dubious anecdote found in the Weems biography is that of Washington's prayer during the winter at Valley Forge.[5][6]

The exaltation of Washington

The exalted esteem in which the United States Capitol Building in the form of Brumidi's fresco The Apotheosis of Washington.

Weems' A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington,[7] was a biography written in this spirit, amplified by the florid, rollicksome style which was Weems' trademark. According to this account, his subject was "... Washington, the hero, and the Demigod ..." and at a level above that "... what he really was, [was] 'the Jupiter Conservator,' the friend and benefactor of men." With this hyperbole, Weems elevated Washington to the Augustan level of the god "Jupiter Conservator [Orbis]" (that is, "Jupiter, Conservator of the Empire", later rendered "Jupiter, Savior of the World").

The cherry-tree anecdote

'Parson Weems' Fable', a 1939 painting by Grant Wood, depicting both Weems and his "Cherry Tree" story.

Among the exaggerated or invented anecdotes is that of the cherry tree, attributed by Weems to "... an aged lady, who was a distant relative, and, when a girl, spent much of her time in the family ..." who referred to young George as "cousin".[8]

It went on to be reprinted in the popular McGuffey Reader used by schoolchildren, making it part of the culture, causing Washington's February 22 birthday to be celebrated with cherry dishes, with the cherry often claimed to be a favorite of his.

In 1896 Eleanor Parke Custis Lewis (1779-1852), who Washington raised as his own daughter, and who spent her life preserving his memory and debunking false stories.

Cultural references

In 1911 Lawrence C. Wroth published Parson Weems: A Biographical and Critical Study.[9] In this he confronts the fact that Weems is best known for the story of the cherry tree (p.6) and examines the evidence for its likelihood (pp.65ff).

Grant Wood painted the scene under the title "Parson Weems' Fable" in 1939. It is among his gently ironic depictions of Americana and shows the parson pulling back a curtain rimmed with cherries to show the story.[10]

Notes

  1. ^ Buescher, John. "[Is the Story of George Washington and the Colt a True Story?]" Teachinghistory.org, accessed September 23, 2011.
  2. ^ Howard, R. W. "Mason Locke Weems" in American Historians, 1607–1865. Ed. Clyde Norman Wilson. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 30. Detroit: Gale Research, 1984. From Literature Resource Center.
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ The story of throwing a pitcher Walter Johnson.
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ Archived online
  10. ^ The painting is analysed in depth at Virginia University site

Sources

  • A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington by Mason Locke Weems (abridged)

Further reading

  •  

External links

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