THE RATIONAL ANIMAL'S END: Chernow discusses the teeth at great length!

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 4, 2020

He barely mentions the thighs:
Alexis Coe's extremely improbable, extremely sad story begins on page xxvii.

It's the third page of her six-page Preface, an absurdly misleading piece of work which leads to her absurdly inaccurate ten-page Introduction. At that point, Coe starts the actual text of the fluffed-out, 200-page book which has become a highly instructive best-seller.

We refer to Coe's extremely strange book, You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington. The highly padded, pointless book helps us get clear on a basic point:

There's nothing so absurdly fraudulent that it won't be hailed by our high end elites, just so long as it reinforces an approved, upper-end tribal narrative.

Our discourse has worked that way for decades. People are dead all over the world because of this cultural breakdown. Coe's book, and its wide acceptance, represents an instructive low point in this routinely sexualized process of dumbnification.

At the very start of her Preface, Coe offers a few general comments about the way female historians are so much better than their male counterparts. Then, her rather strange story begins. As you can see, her story is also quite sad:
COE (page xxvii): The typical Washington biographer grew up on the East Coast, most often in Virginia. He began visiting Mount Vernon and Revolutionary War battlefields as a boy, and now, as a man, he does his research there, among others who look like him. I, on the other hand, grew up in California, which became a state fifty-one years after Washington died...I didn't even visit Mount Vernon until I was in graduate school, and I certainly didn't leave thinking, "One day, I'll write a book about George Washington!"

My preoccupation with Washington began years later, with an attempt to read between the lines of his major biographies—particularly Ron Chernow's Washington: A Life. At first, I found the male historians' fixation on his manliness entertaining, but the sheer repetition of their narratives needled me...They seemed bound to follow rote protocols, distancing us from a man we really ought to know better. And then we, in turn, end up inadvertently perpetrating many stereotypes and exaggerations.

Consider, for instance, the old story about Washington's wooden teeth. If you actually think about it, it doesn't really make sense...
Poor Coe! She doesn't even "look like" the other biographers, the ones who grew up in Virginia.

For what it's worth, we checked! Of the four male biographers slimed by name in Coe's Introduction, three of them clearly didn't grow up in Virginia.

In fairness, one of the four, Joseph Ellis, was born in D.C., and that's quite close to Virginia. He did go to college at William and Mary, though we don't know where he grew up.

The other historians slimed by Coe all seem to have grown up in New York City or New York State. According to the leading authority on his life, Chernow, who is Coe's top target, was born in Brooklyn, graduated from high school in Queens, then moved on to Yale.

So it very much tends to go with Coe's endless, extremely vague claims. Her book is a quick and easy read, unless you decide to fact-check her strange-sounding claims, in which case you may never get to the end of her book at all.

Back to that early passage! That passage includes Coe's first claim about "the male historians' fixation on Washington's manliness," the only part of this worthless New York Times best-seller which anyone is discussing.

At this point, it isn't clear what Coe is talking about with her jibe about this fixation. She goes on to spend several pages talking about George Washington's teeth, seeming to shoot down the idea that his teeth were wooden.

Uh-oh! By wide agreement, that false historical notion was definitively shot down in 1973. It was shot down by Reidar Sognnaes, the founder of the UCLA School of Dentistry, an academic who didn't "look like" Coe and grew up in Norway.

Reading Coe's slippery text, a reader might get the impression that male historians have been pushing the myth of the wooden teeth right up to the present day, with Coe heroically stepping in to set the record straight. Since Chernow is the only historian who has been named at this point, and since Coe names him right before she launches her discussion of the wooden teeth, a reader might even get the impression that he has committed this crime.

Sorry! For what it's worth, Chernow's 2010 biography of Washington won the Pulitzer Prize. In it, Chernow slaps this myth aside in passing.

He does so in one of his several excruciating descriptions of Washington's painful, embarrassing dentures and his defective teeth. He discusses Washington's teeth at length while barely citing his thighs.

At several points in his book, Chernow discusses Washington's dental miseries at substantial length. We'll offer this one brief passage as a sample of his work:
CHERNOW (page 642): The dentures that Greenwood fashioned during Washington's first term as president used natural teeth, inserted into a framework of hippopotamus ivory and anchored on Washington's one surviving tooth. Some dental historians have argued that these dentures were forged from walrus or elephant ivory; the one thing they were not made from is the wood so powerfully entrenched in popular mythology.
As he continues, Chernow offers his view as to the origin of that bit of popular mythology. He also notes that these dentures "made public speaking a nightmare" for Washington and "limited him to a diet of soft foods, chewed carefully with the front teeth."

Washington's teeth and dentures were very painful, a public embarrassment and an enduring nightmare. Chernow discusses these matters at substantial length in several chapters of his book, with intermittent references to Washington's intermittent fear that his dentures might accidentally slip out during public appearances.

We mention Chernow's discussion of Washington's teeth because of an impression Coe manages to convey by the time she's finished her Introduction. In her Introduction, she tells us that Chernow and the other Thigh Men were "driven wild" by Washington's thighs, and tried to disappear his less manly, less heroic attributes.

What impression might a reader take away from these first two parts of Coe's book? Sure enough! When she reviewed Coe's book for Sunday's Washington Post, UMBC's Professor Kars started like this, headline included:
KARS (3/1/20): George Washington always smiled with his mouth closed. His bad teeth deeply embarrassed him. His ill-fitting dentures, he complained, “for[ced] the lip out just under the nose,” Alexis Coe tells us in “You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington.” The prosthetic devices were fashioned out of his own dead teeth (which he carefully kept), bits of ivory, and teeth from cows, horses and his slaves. Washington paid his enslaved workers for their teeth—well below market value.

Washington’s teeth, with which Coe opens her book, hold a special fascination for America’s children, but they are generally deemed too trivial by his male biographers, who have focused more on his masculine thighs than his dental ensemble. These “Thigh Men of Dad History,” as Coe playfully anoints them, have obsessed over Washington’s manliness....
That's the impression Kars took away from Coe's Preface and Introduction. She even restated Coe's claims in her own voice.

According to Professor Kars, Washington's male biographers have deemed his teeth too trivial to discuss. According to Professor Kars, these "Thigh Men" (the name-calling is playful, we're told) have "focused more on his masculine thighs than his dental ensemble."

In fairness to Kars, that's a reasonable reading of what Coe seems to say at the start of her slippery, strange book. It's also a strikingly bogus claim if you simply check the facts—if, as a history professor occasionally should, you decide to examine the actual record before sounding off in the Post.

Chernow discusses Washington's "defective teeth" and "ungainly dentures" repetitively, at substantial length. He barely mentions Washington's thighs at all.

Tomorrow, we'll show you the few tiny statements Chernow makes about Washington's thighs. We'll examine how often the other "Thigh Men"—the sexualized name-calling is of course playful—mention those "masculine thighs."

That said, Chernow is the historian who gets slimed by Coe the most. He discusses Washington's teeth at painful length—at vastly greater length than Washington's thighs, which he barely mentions at all.

Washington's teeth and dentures were embarrassing, painful, defective. So too with the mental habits of our upper-end press corps over the past many years.

That includes the time when Chris Matthews was playfully calling Hillary Clinton, then the first lady, "Evita Peron" and "Nurse Ratched." Also, when he was playfully calling Candidate Gore "today's man-woman."

Dowd's "bald spot" columns were playful too. After all, Gore had "hired a women to teach him to be a man!" The pundits all playfully said it!

The nation's professors have lounged about, refusing to offer correctives to this appalling behavior. By now, things have deteriorated to the point where they rise to restate ridiculous claims in the Washington Post.

Coe's book is the work of a disordered mind. As we struggle to rid ourselves of Trump and Trumpism, a professor is cheering her on.

Tomorrow: How many mentions of thighs?

19 comments:

  1. "There's nothing so absurdly fraudulent that it won't be hailed by our high end elites..."

    Duh. Great revelation, Einstein. And, we might add, not just by your high end zombie elites, but by your fellow rank-and-file zombie comrades too.

    Did you figure it out all by yourself, dear Bob? Impressive.

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  2. “Of the four male biographers slimed by name in Coe's Introduction”

    Slimed? Apparently Somerby equates “criticism” with “sliming”.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Coe: “the male historians' fixation on Washington's manliness”

    TDH: “At this point, it isn't clear what Coe is talking about with her jibe about this fixation.”

    Somerby is clueless when he wants to be. He is ready to acknowledge male-oriented thinking and outright misogyny in media types like Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann, but then refuses to see it in the general population, or imagine the likelihood that it also exists within the ranks of the almost exclusively male biographers of Washington, past and present.

    ReplyDelete
  4. “Chernow's 2010 biography of Washington won the Pulitzer Prize.”

    Maureen Dowd also won the Pulitzer.

    ReplyDelete
  5. “By wide agreement, that false historical notion was definitively shot down in 1973. It was shot down by Reidar Sognnaes, the founder of the UCLA School of Dentistry,”

    And yet, that notion remains with us:

    “Next to the Cherry Tree legend, the story that George Washington wore wooden dentures arguably remains the most widespread and enduring myth about Washington's personal life.”

    http://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/wooden-teeth-myth/

    So, this false historical notion apparently continues to require debunking. Thank you, Alexis.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Coe’s book is not a hit job on Washington. It isn’t even really a hit job on his biographers, just a critical evaluation of them. But one important aspect of her book is a re-evaluation of Mary Washington, George’s mother, who raised him as a single mother starting when George was 11. Coe claims that Mary came to be regarded as a shrewish tyrant by Washington biographers. Coe specifically cites Chernow for this sort of description. She even refers you to footnotes that source specific extracts from Chernow. (There are 40 pages of end notes, for what it’s worth).

    Perhaps this lends credence to Coe’s views about the male (and myth-making) point of view promoted by biographers. But it is an interesting and fresh perspective in its own right on someone who had a significant influence on Washington.

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  8. James Thomas Flexner wrote a biography "Washington: The Indispensable Man" which won the National Book Award. It mentions thighs because Washington apparently had a tumor on his thigh which was diagnosed as anthrax. That suggests that any biographer worth his salt must mention thighs.

    If Somerby is going to argue that these male biographers never mentioned thighs, he is going to be demonstrating that they didn't write a thorough biography either.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Here is what Publisher's Weekly said about Chernow's bio of Washington, when it was first released:

    "Along the way, however, he mistakes "visceral" for ardent; while he never hides Washington's less than saintly moments or shirks the vexed question of slavery, he often seems to ignore the data he's collected. Examples of shady dealing are quickly followed by tales of Washington's unimpeachable ethics or impeccable political savvy. At times it feels as if Chernow, for all his careful research and talent for synthesis, is in the grip of a full-scale crush. The result is a good book that would have been great if better edited, and if Chernow had trusted that Washington's many merits, even when accompanied by his faults, would speak for themselves."

    Note that the reviewers don't mention Washington's thighs, but they do accuse Chernow of having a man-crush, of ignoring Washington's flaws and trying to build him up for the reader. This is exactly what Coe accused Chernow of doing. Apparently, Coe's opinion is shared and not as odd as Somerby claims.

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