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The following tape recorded program is a presentation of the National Association of educational broadcasters. The University of Chicago presents Robert Streeter professor of English in some American where these programs about curious and interesting figures in the American past. Today we hear about Parson Weems biography of George Washington. Mr. Streeter nowadays we remember Weems as the biographer who converted George Washington from a man into a myth who first gave currency to the story of the cherry tree and other legends of the demagogues boyhood. The Life of Washington was a very natural and very profitable outgrowth of Weems career as King of the booksellers. Here is how the Washington biography came into being in 1792 when Williams was 33 years old he gave up the directorship of an Episcopal parish in Maryland and took to book selling. He married a girl from
Dumfries Virginia not far from Washington's Mount Vernon Estate and settled down in Dumfries or at least used it as the base for his far ranging travels. Wayne's wife was related to the balls. The family of Washington's mother and apparently the parson himself had a few casual meetings with Washington at Mount Vernon. At any rate when we brought out of body and with the ambitious title the immortal mentor or man's honoring guide to a healthy wealthy and happy life he turned to President Washington for a title page blurb. And the great general came through handsomely. I have perused it with singular satisfaction wrote the father of his country and hesitate not to say that it is in my opinion at least an invaluable compilation. I cannot but hope that a book whose contents do so much credit to its title will meet a very generous patronage. After Washington's death in 1799
weans was called upon to preach a funeral sermon at a little Episcopal Church near Mount Vernon. This eulogy he immediately printed added to his literary wares and carried through several editions. Gradually developing this profitable literary property he finally 806 expanded the biography to a two hundred fifty pages by him. It is in this edition that the cherry tree yarn first appears to add to his authority as author Weems called himself on the title page of this Fifth Edition former rector of Mount Vernon Parish and gave the impression of considerable intimacy with the Washington family. Sticklers for a fact pointed out that there was no Mt. Vernon Parish in Virginia and that there was no evidence that Weems had ever preached before Washington. Everyone admitted however that there was plenty of evidence that Parson Weems had already evolved into a super salesman in the in the biography itself.
Parson Weems as a sound moralist never allowed the absence of corroborated fact to prevent him from driving home a solid truth. He was tireless in the manufacture of quotations to place in the mouth of his hero. For example young George remonstrating against fighting by the boys at his school is made to protest piously. And what must be the feelings of our tender parents when instead of seeing us come home smiling and lovely as the joy of their hearts they see us creeping in like young blaggard with our heads bound up black eyes and bloody clothes. Virtually all the events of Washington's adult life are narrated in such a way as to present the hero as a figure of happy go even mythological dimensions. Doesn't his account of general Braddock's defeat during the French and Indian War Weems speculates as to how Providence spared Washington for his important later services.
A famous Indian warrior Weems reports had 17 fair fires at Washington but missed every time weans concludes with this line lettered savage that there was some invisible hand that turned aside the bullets went in style which could never be described as chaste or subdued grows lurid indeed at the high points of the narrative. The plight of the British at the Battle of Bunker Hill evoked a Homeric simile while fully exposed within Point Blank Shot ranks on the ranks fell before the American marksman as the heavy eared corn before the devouring hail storm one with whirlwind rage its nights the trembling earth and rushes on smoking and roaring through desolated feels similarly. The situation of Britain after the defeat at Saratoga was conveyed by a pathetic personification. Then was seen the
faded form of Ocean's Queen fire famed Britannia sitting alone in tearful on her Western cliff with downcast look her faith the lion lay roaring at her feet while torn and scattered on the rock were seen her many trophies of ancient fame and the parson pulled out all the stops for his description of Washington putting down a conspiracy in his army. As he spoke his cheeks naturally pale were reddened over with virtues pure vermilion while his eyes of surreality in blue were kindled up with those indescribable fires which fancy lends to an angel or a tear or animating poor mortals to the sublimest of God like deeds. Wayne's super charged account of recent history plays the popular taste and the life of Washington went through six editions in the first five years and through a dozen more before Weems died in 18 25. Since his death there
have been more than 50 authorized additions. We knew a successful formula when he saw one. So it was not long before he was casting about for another revolutionary hero he might immortalized. He found his man in general Francis Marion the famed Swamp Fox of the South Carolina Patriots. He found his materials for the narrative when Brigadier General Peter Hari one of Marion's surviving lieutenants offered him letters and documents bearing on guerrilla doings during the revolution. Weems accepted the documents gratefully but as usual did not allow his imagination to be intimidated by them. Hari who had expected a sober and solid biography of his old leader. He was thunderstruck when we wrote to him in December 89. I have endeavored to throw your ideas and facts about general Marian into the garb and dress of a military romance. Actually Wayne's told the story in the
first person as if Hari himself were narrating it and he crowded full of pungent and racy and dotes of partisan warfare. Although the story expresses great admiration for Marian and his followers Weems here is less ceremonious in dealing with his heroes who are much less exalted after all than the great Washington in describing General Marion's infancy Weems writes gaily. I have it from good authority that this great soldier at his birth was not larger than a New England lobster and might easily enough have been put into a quart pot. When weans wants to point out how the war turned the state of society upside down in South Carolina he gives a concrete picture. He writes the sacred plow was everywhere seen rusting in the weedy furrows grog shops and many houses were springing up as thick as hops at the house of God you saw nobody but if there was a devil's house a Dream Shop hard by
you might be sure to see that crowded with poor lads or writes with red noses and black eyes and the fences all strung along with starved takis in grape vine bridles and sheep skin saddles the unflagging exist with which Weems Chronicles Marion's deeds is seen particularly well in his story of how the Patriots surprised a group of Tories at their rebels and annihilated them. Even their fiddles and fiddle bows and playing cards he concluded were all left strewed around their fires. One of the gamblers. It is a serious truth though shot dead still held the cards hard gripped in his hands led by curiosity to inspect this site. A dead gambler. We found that the cards which he held were Ace do send Jack clubs were trumps holding high low jack in the game in his own hand. He seemed in a fair way to do well. But Marion came down on him with a trump that spoiled his
sport and none suited him for ever. In addition to the biographies of Washington and Marion Parson Weems also wrote the lives of Benjamin Franklin and William Penn. But it must be admitted that these are relatively tepid performances compared with his narratives about the revolutionary warriors. But whatever the merits of the books he battled whether written by himself or someone else. Weems always reinforce these merits with the most aggressive and imaginative salesmanship. Because of his reputation as a patriotic reckon Terry he was sometimes able to present his sales appeal in fairly exalted places. For instance in 18 to when he was in Annapolis the capital of Maryland. So let's I think subscriptions for Chief Justice John Marshall is ponderous life of Washington. The parson turned the state legislature into an arena for the display of his wares as he wrote to the publisher of
Justice Marshall's book. I instantly determine the how still being in session to congregate then next morning I threw a note to the chair soliciting the honor of uttering before that a patriotic oration. They came together. They were pleased and have begun to subscribe. When Wayne's was busy at his job of selling books he had a ready answer for any who objected to the quality of his merchandise. One day in Fairfax County Virginia as Williams was showing off his stock a local clergyman noted among the books a copy of Tom Paine's age of reason which was anathema to the godly. The shocked clergyman turned away Ames and said. Is it possible that you can sell such a book straightway the quick witted weans went to his stall selected Bishop Watson's famous reply to Paine and said Behold the antidote. The bane and the antidote are both before you. Present day publishers who put out low
priced paperback volumes and then then in drug stores grocery stores and railroad stations should recognise in we names a truly kindred spirit by one of the parsons leading ideas was that both the prosperity of the book trade and the education of the American people required the distribution of cheap books in every hamlet throughout the country. His letters to the Philadelphia publisher Matthew Carey are filled with the insistence on the necessity of pricing books so that they will be in reach of the masses and 18:1 he wrote with characteristic pungency to carry. I deem it glory to circulate valuable books. I would circulate millions. This cannot be effected without the character of cheapness. But the public point to me and say There goes the little parson that brings us so many clever books and so cheap. And I ask no more. But this building a high fortune on low priced books appears to use strains as the fattening a calf by bleeding
it. But the Scotch merchants who are your best marksman at a dollar on the wing will tell you that there is nothing like the number 9 pence. In 89 we suggested an even more specific formula for popular publishing to carry. When I was with you in Philadelphia was I not constantly telling you that high priced books and books without name would not do my country said I is made up of the small fry. Give me a sane of small meshes. It is but rare that I want to see an author that stands higher than a dollar. Give me 50 varieties from 25 to 50 or 75 cents. Interesting subjects fascinating from his pieces that has a modern reign and showing and showy bindings and I shall carry everything before me especially after these you add the auxillary of numerous catalogues and striking flourishes on the great pleasure and profits which the farmers and their boys and girls may
Some American worthies
Parson Weems, biographer
Producing Organization
University of Chicago
Contributing Organization
University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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Episode Description
A profile of Parson Weems, the biographer of George Washington.
Other Description
Profiles of curious figures in the American past, based on diaries, journals and other books of personal record. The speaker is Robert E. Streeter, a professor of English at the University of Chicago.
Broadcast Date
Washington, George, 1732-1799.
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Producing Organization: University of Chicago
Speaker: Streeter, Robert E.
AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 55-11-2 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:14:40
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Chicago: “Some American worthies; Parson Weems, biographer,” 1955-04-10, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed August 13, 2022,
MLA: “Some American worthies; Parson Weems, biographer.” 1955-04-10. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. August 13, 2022. <>.
APA: Some American worthies; Parson Weems, biographer. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from