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On George Washington and the Essentials

“Monday Musings” for Monday October 28, 2013

Volume III, No, 41/135


Books About George Washington, The Father of Our Country

By: Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

(In the tumult of government shutdown, economic uncertainties and America’s waning credibility on the world stage, I thought it would be reassuring and soothing to go back home, go back to the  house of the country’s father, the father of our country and have a visit with him.  Here are some of the books about the Great patriarch and the first President of the United State of America, George Washington)

In spite of the rivers of ink spilled on and about America’s founding fathers, the pantheon of these towering and majestic intellects remains relatively untouched. For example, few know George Washington’s reading list. Few know the favorite books that Thomas Jefferson found page turner and to which he referred repeatedly. Few know the pocket edition of which author was the constant companion of Benjamin Franklin, the scientist, the politician, the diplomat, the bon vivant and the ladies’ man of Paris. Few know where Patrick Henry learned his gift of oratory and rhetoric of which Thomas Jefferson was jealous. I am proposing some young entrepreneur PhD candidate in English literature to collect the names of all America’s Founding Fathers, research their preference in reading, theater, literature, the arts, music, composers, theology, and science, and give us a 24 volume each 1000 pages collection to satisfy the PhD dissertation. After all, Eusebius of Pamphili, Josephus, accomplished this exact feat, writing 24 volumes biography of Moses and Jesus in Aramaic…

In the pages of WCP over the past 15 years, we have made periodic and sporadic efforts to answer some of these issues for the curious. The article on “Thomas Jefferson, the Fiddler” published two years ago, brought us enormous volume of mail. The response to the article on what GW liked in plays and books, published four years ago, reflected enormous interest in the topic and almost overpowered our inbox capacity. This article is a focus on who and what biographers and historians have written about the Founding Father and CEO of the American enterprise, the Captain of America’s soul, and the righteous George Washington.

The latest biography of George Washington is by Ronald Chernow, the American biographer who is the author of Alexander Hamilton, The House of Morgan, and Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., among other works. Author Ron Chernow, born in 1949, is a Yale and Oxford educated lad. He studied English literature. He is now a freelance author. Washington: A Life, the Penguin Press, 904 pages, $40.00, is remarkable in that it examines best Washington’s personality and instincts. In my opinion, this is the best book ever written about Washington in one volume. The purpose of this essay is not to review Chernow’s book, but to offer our readers a fairly complete compendium of books written about GW from 1800 until now.

The efforts of Douglas Southall Freeman and James Thomas Flexner (yes, he was related to Abraham Flexner of 1910 who revamped American Medicine- see the October issue, WCP-) have offered a multivolume work on GW which brought the Pulitzer Prize to both authors. Flexner has a one-volume, Washington: The Indispensable Man, which is a must read if one wishes to know how GW’s mind worked.

We all know the Washington myth of cutting down the cherry tree perpetrated by Parson Weem’s 1800 tale. Douglas Southall Freeman’s biography of GW is the closest work to a psychobiographical account of GW factually reporting on GW’s hot-tempered youth, his narcissistic and self-adulating tendencies, gradually being replaced with concerns for his country. Flexner tried to outdo Freeman in his four volume work written 1965 to 1972. However, Freeman’s seven volumes (1948-1957) collected work remains unsurpassed. Both authors completely debunk all myths about GW, and offer the reader a naked and brilliant account of a vulnerable human being. Reading these volumes gives one the feeling that GW was not only a General, a leader, a father figure, but he also had a theological sense of himself.  He demonstrated how the powers of introspection and self-examination bring about abundant possibilities, hope, and redemption to our lives. This is very much consonant with Pauline theology in the New Testament.  GW lived a life that clearly represents transformation of a self-serving narcissist to a public serving altruist. After all, is this not the primary purpose of all world religions?

There are other GW’s biographers: Joseph Ellis’s His Excellency, a rather comparatively short biography, 320 pages (reviewed for our readers in 2004), and Richard Brookhiser’s elegiac and elegant Founding Father in 1996.  The author called it a “moral biography” in the tradition of what some reviewers such as Carl Rollyson call “a biography in the tradition of Plutarch”.  Mr. Rollyson opines that “Washington dominated the national scene far longer than Abraham Lincoln and FDR, and scholars have been loath to take on the whole man within the covers of a single volume…” Mr. Chernow ought to be congratulated to have triumphantly accomplished the feat in one 960 page volume.  We have other books about GW:  the admirable, if truncated, 2005 book by Edward Lingel’s General George Washington and 2006 Peter R. Henrique’s thematic Realistic Visionary.  Having critically read and studied all these books about the father of our country, in my view the Freeman and Flexner volumes are the most comprehensive and intellectually stimulating of all.

Finally, for students of George Washington, and for that matter, for every person who proclaims to be an American, from school children to the Justices of the US Supreme Court, it is not only desirable but necessary to know and if not memorize George Washington’s Farewell Address, along with the other three essential components of what is known as America’s political literature. They are the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the 85 articles comprising the Federalist Papers.


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.

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On America and the English Language

Monday Musings for Monday February 4, 2013

Volume III, No.5/109

bill of rights - good

Monday Musings for Monday February 4, 2013

Volume III, No.5/109

Love affair with the English Language

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

Today’s Musings are imbued with personal memories. They have to do with my choosing to come to America and study medicine, among other things. You see, I was not born an American. I chose to be an American. I entered the US on April 7, 1955 knowing ten English words.

In order to go to college and prepare for a medical education, I knew that I had to learn English rather quickly.  In months between April and September when college opened, I memorized the 285,000 words of the 1955 edition of the Oxford Dictionary. Later, I expanded this knowledge and learned the etymology of practically every one of those words.  Soon, I learned that Dr. Samuel Johnson exactly 200 years before my date of entry, namely April 7, 1755 had compiled the first English Dictionary.  the very first edition of the Oxford Dictionary was compiled in 1857 a la Dr. Johnson’s original compendium.  I found a copy of that precious book through the Library of Congress. The edition contains 50,000 words. I enjoyed memorizing it, also, and forming an adoring relationship with the work of the late Dr. Johnson.  As an aside, the original Dr. Johnson’s 50,000 word dictionary was a part of the personal library of Thomas Jefferson sold to US Government which became the germinating seed of our beloved US Library of Congress.

Three years were spent in college pre-medical education with majors in English and Chemistry. I entered medical school in 1958. In 1962, exactly seven years after coming to the US, I had earned Doctor of Medicine (MD).

My intense experience with the English language brought me close to much older and wiser linguists and University Professors. Among them was the late Samuel Hayakawa, the then Chancellor of San Francisco State University, who in 1977 became A US Senator from California. He used to get a kick out of my referring to him as the semi-somnolent septuagenarian, Senator Samuel Hayakawa.
I wrote a letter to Hayakawa and to our own then Senator, Jesse Helms, who also knew something about my love of the English language, suggesting that they sponsor a bill to make English the official language of America. I even sent some money to facilitate expenses associated with the authorship of the bill, etc…
I believe it was 1979 when they invited me to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the House’s Foreign Affairs Committee.  The bill never passed.

In my testimonies, instead of concentrating on the importance of the subject matter, the solons enjoyed my ability to close my eyes and recite page after page of the Oxford Dictionary, “octave, octennial, octet, octillion, octillionth, October, octodecimo, octogenarian, octomerous, octoary, octoploid, octopod, octopus, octoroon, etc…”
With all my emotional and intellectual resources, I believe making English the official language of America is the most important issue in today’s political discourse.  It is an abomination and travesty that folks can come to America, live for as many as 30 years, and know not who Abraham Lincoln is, or the first thing about our flag, or the Founding Fathers of the US Constitution. I believe that to be an American, one must know the English language, know the bare essentials of our Constitution, our Republic, our Bill of Rights and the story of the birth of this nation and our Founding Fathers. What are the requirements to be an American? In my view, the catechism of being an American should consist of a good knowledge, if not verbatim memorization, of four documents. They are, the US Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Federalist Papers and George Washington’s Farewell Address.
Please feel free to call on me and use me as a reference to further this, what I consider to be a holy cause.
God Bless America!

*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill. He is Emeritus, Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012)

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