Becoming American in Fact and Fiction

Reading David O. Stewart marks a return to first principles and to how this country was made.

Via Wikimedia Commons
Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. Via Wikimedia Commons

David O. Stewart’s “George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father” is now in paperback (Dutton, 576 pages) and worth considering again as an astute account of how our first president established himself as a national figure by his early 20s while learning to curb his rash and impolitic tendencies.

Mr. Stewart’s biographies are informed by his work as a novelist. “The New Land,” now available in audio (Tantor Media), is a kind of fictional group biography about the Oberstrasse family, which is headed by a former Hessian, Johann, who has a knack for making friends and teaching himself new trades on the wild Maine coast in 1753.

What does a novelist bring to biography? Well, here is Mr. Stewart describing the impact of George Washington in a scene that exudes imagination informed by fact: “The image of Washington in full uniform, striding the streets, socializing, and attending congressional sessions, carries the strong whiff of a man intent on high command. Possibly he wore the uniform to show his commitment to the cause, although the image calls to mind the guest who arrives with a guitar slung over one shoulder, desperately hoping that someone will ask for a song. Yet no delegate seems to have found the uniformed Washington ridiculous. Despite statements about how unworthy he felt for command, he pursued that command avidly.”

Not many biographers can rival Mr. Stewart’s wit or deep learning. The “possibly” in this paragraph shows how the novelist has curbed himself as biographer and yet, like a novelist, he has brought the past vividly into the present. 

Biography and the novel meet in Mr. Stewart’s exploration of what it means to be an American. Like Washington, Johann Oberstrasse is a warrior who knows how to make peace while preparing for war. He befriends Robert McDonnell, a cantankerous Celt who nonetheless becomes a stalwart soldier-in-arms as they fight the French — just as Washington went out of his way to ally himself with New Englanders, traveling a lot farther than just “across the aisle.”

The running theme of Mr. Stewart’s work in fiction and fact is the recognition that becoming an American involves divestment and acquisition. Washington could not have been successful by simply following the code of a gentleman Virginian any more than Johann could survive in the new land without a new name, becoming John Overstreet.

Reading David O. Stewart marks a return to first principles and to how this country was made — sometimes literally, as in the “The New Land” account of Johann/John learning to become a carpenter by observing and working for the crafty Robert McDonnell. The novel reminds me of “Robinson Crusoe” in its evocation of the ingenuity employed for survival.

Great novels and biographies are filled with the nuances and contradictions of human history. So it is that Johann — still Oberstrasse — new to the land and determined to kill no more, has to use a bayonet he has brought with him to America in order to kill a Penobscot who has been stealing from his animal traps.  

I had to hold my breath as the two men struggled, with Johann finally getting the advantage when his adversary slips and ending the battle by driving his weapon deep and up into the heart. I haven’t spoiled it for you, by the way. That scene, especially as narrated by B.J. Harrison for the audio book, will remain to haunt you. 

Oberstrasse has been told not to molest the Penobscots. But what is he to do when the very survival of his family during a tough winter is at stake? He is aware that there is no “right” to what he has done, and the death torments him and informs his misgivings when his son Franklin decides to fight on the side of the rebellious colonists at Bunker Hill.

“The New Land,” which takes us only as far as 1775 in the Overstreet Saga, will continue in volume 2, “The Burning Land,” dealing with the Civil War and its aftermath. I don’t know the details of that new work, but I’m expecting a great deal after reading the chapter in Mr. Stewart’s Washington biography titled “Wrestling with Sin.”

Mr. Rollyson, the author of “American Biography” and the forthcoming “William Faulkner Day by Day,” is at work on a book about presidential biography.

The New York Sun

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