Tim Walker: Review of Joel Achenbach’s The Grand Idea: George Washington’s Potomac and the Race to the West (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004)
The Grand Idea, by Washington Post journalist Joel Achenbach, treats a little-studied episode in U.S. history with more than ordinary historical sensitivity for a non-professional historian. Unfortunately, despite the energy with which it’s written, the book fails to cohere because of shallow scholarship, lack of narrative focus, and an uneven tone. Call it a near miss by a good writer.
The book treats George Washington’s obsession with his beloved Potomac River, centering on his plans to turn the Potomac into a major artery from the Atlantic coast to the trans-Appalachian west. Most of Achenbach’s chronological narrative comes from the period of Washington’s life after the Revolution and before his ascension to the Presidency. Achenbach points out how the United States in many ways experienced a precarious existence when the Articles of Confederation prevailed. “The nation in 1784,” he writes, “was still something of an allegation, an assertion, a hypothesis, an aspiration written in the dirt of North America.” With turns of phrase like this, Achenbach reveals a keen historical instinct married to a flair with words.
His lively prose style and sharp historical sensibility are further evident in his treatment of Washington as a man with a mission. Achenbach gracefully faces down the challenge faced by any historian who tackles such a well-known subject: how do you say anything new about one of history’s most famous individuals? The answer, of course, is that you need not present new discoveries about the person; it can be enough to narrate what is already known in some new way. For the most part, Achenbach passes this test. He focuses the bulk of his book around the 1784 trip Washington took to explore the upper reaches of the Potomac watershed and his own landholdings across the Appalachians. Achenbach argues that “sometimes we understand a person best when we see what he does in his spare time, when he is not forced by necessity to dash off into battle or settle a political dispute.” Washington’s tour of the “hinterlands” offers a view of the great man’s mind and interests that historians obsessed with Washington the public figure have downplayed.
While this view is nothing new, it is presented well. In particular, Achenbach probes Washington’s great social reserve, his relentless focus on the future, and his carefully managed image. Here again Achenbach’s prose serves him well, as when he says of Washington that “his humility formed a thin crust on a deep lake of pride.” Other choice sentences are not hard to find: “Washington would be heading into his element as he reached the American backwoods, while Jefferson would take to Paris like a man slipping into a tailored jacket”; “[Washington] knew better than most people that the Potomac was many different rivers inhabiting the valley at different times of the year.”
But the author’s clever turns of phrase get him into trouble when they become glib. He describes Washington as “a details freak,” a locution that is sure to seem stale even ten years from now. Frontier law was “squishy.” The implications of a Potomac booster’s 1784 newspaper article were “mind-blowing stuff”; at one point, Washington is “back in the saddle again.” Worse than this flow of dated colloquialisms and clichés, though, is Achenbach’s tendency to carry a metaphor too far. An example of this problem comes when Achenbach discusses the impact of Washington’s retirement upon his carefully crafted reputation: “His return to private life had been so masterfully staged and so fundamentally astounding--with a single gesture he’d separated himself from every despot, every mandarin, ever Caesar in the history of the world--and he didn’t want to scramble the narrative. You could say his reputation was his palace, handcrafted over many years. He’d fired every brick, hammered every nail. He’d eyeballed every beam and joist to make sure they were on the level. It didn’t need any more work, this reputation. Didn’t need another wing.” The first sentence is terrific. The next two are fine, and so is “It didn’t need any more work . . .” But “He’d eyeballed every beam . . .” and “Didn’t need another wing” are exactly the sort of sentences that should be left on the cutting-room floor. Examples like this suggest that Achenbach lacks the perfect pitch of a John McPhee, and that the book was not edited stringently enough to bring his fluency under control.
Despite Achenbach’s narrative flair, his focus eventually blurs. Washington dies with ninety pages left to go, and the subsequent five chapters about the Potomac take a long route to tell a short tale about how Potomac navigation was outstripped by the Erie Canal and the railroads. As I’ve already suggested, Achenbach makes good observations about Washington and about the Potomac, but the focus of the book should have been more on one or the other. At the very least, the long post-Washington section could have been reduced to a single chapter.
The Grand Idea might have been much stronger at 150 pages or less--around the length of terrific McPhee books like Oranges or The Survival of the Bark Canoe. Such an approach might have kept Achenbach from stretching out his tale, allowing him to frame it as a work of literary nonfiction on a historical subject. It is no shame that The Grand Idea relies so much on secondary scholarship, especially since Achenbach is uniformly generous in acknowledging as much (for example, he credits prior researchers with “heroic work in trying to untangle the legal knots around [Washington’s] Millers Run property”), and since he also works extensively from Washington’s published papers. But the work is not the fruit of deep archival research, and it offers no penetrating scholarly interpretations. To cast the book as a short work of literary nonfiction would have put the spotlight on Achenbach’s writing flair and sound historical sense. To cast it as a full-length narrative history saddles it with the burden of presenting the history of Washington in a new light--which this book does not.
The Grand Idea is thus a frustrating book because, for all its faults, it makes clear how good a writer Joel Achenbach is and how much good sense he has about matters historical. We can hope that his next project is better edited and thus better captures his own abilities as an explainer of the past.
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