Alexis Coe and the rise of Hipster History
You Never Forget Your First, Alexis Coe’s snappy, snarky new biography of George Washington, doesn’t exactly break any new ground in Washington historiography. Washington was a slaveholder? Check. He was a reluctant President? Indeed. People started hating him after he took office? Same as it ever was. But Coe still twists the George Washington perspective quite a bit. As she’s quick to point out in the book’s introduction and most controversial segment, men have gotten to write almost all Washington doorstop biographies. And they’ve all been obsessed with his manliness. These “Thigh Men,” as Coe calls them because they seem obsessed with the thickness of Washington’s thighs, may have been projecting those macho qualities onto their own feelings of inadequacy. Coe has no such neuroses.
Coe belongs to a small subset of writers that, for these purposes, we’ll call Hipster Historians. She first called attention to herself in an Atlantic essay that claimed male professors married to boost their careers. Along with a Daily Show writer, she co-hosted an Audible podcast called Presidents Are People Too. She writes You Never Forget Your First in the podcast style, full of cute lists and little charts mixed in among the long quotes of George Washington’s letters to Martha from the battlefront.
Other Hipster Historians include Karen Abbott, who tends towards off-kilter Devil In The White City narratives, Sarah Vowell, who’s more of a comic essayist with an extreme enthusiasm for history, and the Hardcore History podcast’s Dan Carlin, who doesn’t completely write his own material. But You Never Forget Your First is no Partly Cloudy Patriot. Coe more or less trumpets in the opening pages that she’s breaking new ground, whether she is or not. It’s time, she says, for women to start writing Presidential biographies. She’s no Thigh Man.
That said, the same things that impress Washington’s other biographers impress her as well. Washington comes off as non-ideological, and an excellent and patient politician. Coe seems reasonably impressed at how he step-parents his wife Martha’s two children. However, she hardly finds noble Washington’s decision not to father children of his own. In fact, she says a number of our times, The Father Of Our Country was almost certainly sterile.
Washington also, as Coe says over and over again in You Never Forget Your First, owned slaves. And she claims, unlike other biographers, that he didn’t care whether or not they were free and made little effort to free them himself. The book’s final line says that the land around Mount Vernon is strewn with the unmarked corpses of Washington’s human chattel.
Washington certainly didn’t have wooden teeth and the cherry tree story is a total myth. Also, he blundered the world into the French and Indian War, the first truly global conflict, which lasted seven years. He was probably a better spymaster than a tactical general. And he ordered the murder of his own citizens during the Whiskey Rebellion. That’s a lot more damning than “John Adams didn’t like him,” which is about as far as Washington criticism got in previous efforts.
This is a short, easily digestible, thoroughly enjoyable story, packed with research and incident. Footnotes and other research materials take up nearly 40 percent of the pages. Subtle eyerolls at the patriarchy take up another 20 percent. And Coe’s self-promotional instincts take up pretty much every page. That’s the real purpose of this book, as unsubtle a calling card as any writer ever created. You Never Forget Your First doesn’t necessarily break any new ground in our understanding of Washington, but it smashes open the Hipster Historian vault as to who gets to tell the Presidential story. The Thigh Men has better watch out. Because when it comes to Presidents, thighs don’t matter anymore.
(Viking, February 4, 2020)