One subset of travel books that I enjoy are those that mix travel with some theme of discovery. John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley is the model from which many of these books have taken their example, and Nathaniel Philbrick is quick to admit that Steinbeck served as a model for his entry in this sub-genre, Travels with George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy. I like books like these because they mix history with travelogue in a way that often makes a stark comparison between then and now.
Books in this sub-genre are often attempts at taking the temperature of the general public on some topic. In his wonderful book The Longest Road, Philip Caputo was asking the question: what held the country together? In their book Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey into the Heart of America (my favorite book of 2020) James and Deborah Fallows travel the country by air in a single-engine plane learning how, despite problems, people are finding solutions.
Nathaniel Philbrick sets out to follow the route George Washington took just before and after his inauguration, when he visited each of the new states to get a sense of the country for which he had just fought for independence, and for which he has just been elected President. This captured my interest in colonial history, in presidential history, and in travel, and I enjoyed the book. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the author and it was a delight.
Up to this point, I’d only read one full biography of George Washington, Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life. What Philbrick was doing in Travels with George was not writing a biography, but following Washington’s path through the states, and along with way, separating myth from history, and coming face-to-face with the paradox that Washington, in addition to being the first president of a republican democracy founded on the principle that all men are created equal, was also a slave owner.
Where Philbrick delves into separating the myth from the history was among my favorite parts of the book. How many places claim the label “Washington slept here”? Through careful study of source material, Philbrick was able to identify several such claims as impossible. Washington was clearly somewhere else at the time. I was also moved by Washington’s affection for his soldiers, even years afterward. Still, an important thread throughout the book is the struggle to understand Washington the slave-holder versus Washington the defender of liberty.
Philbrick makes much of his journey with his wife, and their dog, meeting interesting people along the way, and occasionally getting snarled in traffic; the routes they take avoid the interstates since those roads didn’t exist when Washington made his grand tour.
This was an enjoyable read that gave additional insight into parts of Washington’s life I hadn’t been acquainted with. But perhaps the most valuable thing I took from the book was Philbrick himself. I enjoyed his writing, his style, and his narration. He’s another writer, like Philip Caputo and James and Deborah Fallows that I can look forward to reading more from. Already, I’m eager to delve into his history of Nantucket Island, Away Offshore, as well as his book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. Sometimes, nothing is more valuable than finding a reliable writer you enjoy reading.
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