Sometimes the smallest mysteries are the most intriguing.
I’ve decided to read a biography of every US president in chronological order. To make this less daunting, I’ve also decided there will be no time limit. I’m not the first to do this (or even the first to blog about it) but maybe I can be the slowest! A few friends asked me to write reviews of each book I read, but I’m more interested in sharing random thoughts along the way.
Since this is my first post, I’ll share a little background. I didn’t want to start this blog until I knew the project would stick. So far I’ve read biographies of Washington and Adams, so I’m 5% of the way there. My entries about Washington and Adams will be retrospective, but my reactions to Jefferson and beyond will be more raw.
My process in choosing which biography to read (in case you were wondering) involves reading lots of Amazon reviews and considering the length and focus of the book and its general availability, with a slant toward newer biographies because they’re just more fun and maybe the author’s been on The Daily Show.
But I didn’t choose which Washington bio to read myself. Last Christmas, my lovely wife (then fiancee) Jess decided to start me on my journey through the presidents by giving me James Thomas Flexner’s Washington: The Indispensable Man.
Flexner had written an enormous four-volume tome on Washington, and later released a condensed single version because he wanted people like me to read it.
What struck me first was the inside front cover, the painting “View of Mount Vernon with the Washington Family on the Piazza” by Benjamin Henry Latrobe.
In the caption, Flexner lists the characters in the painting and adds, “dog unidentified.” It occurred to me he could have just said “and dog” or left the animal out entirely, but that’s not how Flexner rolls. Clearly he wished he could tell us who that dog was, because of course the beloved creature had a name, an identity, and probably a crucial role in Washington’s second term…but the truth eluded him.
It was clear in Flexner’s book that Washington and his contemporaries knew they were living in a historically significant time and the details of their lives would be preserved. The simple phrase “dog unidentified” stuck with me as a reminder that some of the simpler things just can’t be known.
Mount Vernon’s website listed the painting in its collection (it’s now at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History), and their description read: “Nelly’s dog, Frisk, plays on the lawn with a child, possibly belonging to Washington’s aide, Tobias Lear.”
What. The. Hell. Nelly was Washington’s step-granddaughter, and according to MountVernon.org, the dog unidentified isn’t unidentified at all, it’s Frisk, her pet spaniel. (No one seems to care who the child was. No one.)
James Thomas Flexner died in 2003, or else I would try to contact him and ask him if Frisk’s identity was only recently discovered, or if he was well aware of this whole “Frisk” theory but wasn’t having it. Or maybe Flexner found some evidence, some conspiracy, some…Friskgate that produced a shadow of a doubt shadowy enough that he couldn’t in good conscience identify the dog.
Whatever the case, it makes me think my wife made a good choice by choosing an author whose attention to detail meant I was in good hands. In a world where so much information is available instantly, it gives me hope that some things still remain a mystery.