Book Review: You Never Forget Your First

Despite having a weird name, this book is actually a presidential biography. A biography, of course, about our first president: George Washington.

The Book

You Never Forget Your First
Author: Alexis Coe
2020
Amazon Link

I first heard about this book in a CNN article about it. It praised the book as being written by a female author, the first female-authored biography of G-dubs in 50+ years, and credited that with some of the unique perspectives seen in the book. It claimed that this was the first biography to reveal the real Washington and tell you what was what. I hadn’t thought about how all the history books I’ve read except the biography of Rachel Jackson had been written by men, so I thought this one would be interesting to pick up.

A Spoiler-ific Review Because Why Not

I thought this book was a good introduction to Washington but, probably because I’m so used to reading and enjoying books by the “thigh men” Coe repeatedly lambasted, it felt woefully non-comprehensive. This was a book for someone vaguely interested in Washington or looking for a new perspective on his life (especially if interested in his relationship with slavery, and especially if not interested in a more nuanced look at Washington’s thoughts and actions regarding the villainous practice). It’s a short enough biography that someone only glancingly interested in Washington could pick it up and get through it, but I’m not sure they’d get anything out of their time anyway.

I credit Coe for her extensive research on Washington’s slaves. This portion of his life seemed to be one of the primary focuses of the book and perhaps was one of Coe’s most ardent causes in writing the book. Slavery, especially about specific individuals, is a difficult thing to research simply due to incomplete records, destroyed records, and silenced voices. For this reason, I think the biography is an interesting addition to the litany of Washington-focused works.

However, those items which are most associated with Washington – such as much of his adventures during the Revolutionary War or a lot of details about his presidency – are absent. Coe cites her reasoning as that the “thigh men” have already investigated and written about this in excruciating detail, which I understand, but the book is already sufficiently short that I didn’t agree with the choice to cut these aspects. The part about the Revolutionary War was especially short, as she only provided a table summarizing his battles. She focused on his effective spy network, but that made the excuse not to expound on the military aspects further questionable; others have also expounded upon the spy network (or this other one – God, there’s a lot), often in conjunction with the military.

The lighthearted tone could be engaging, but it left the book feeling non-academic and made me question the authority of the author (for which I feel guilty, since part of her goal was to show women could be authorities on these subjects). I think I wasn’t a fan of the approach to be entertaining and funny, since a biography – even one this short – can be served by an element of gravitas in order to confirm scholarliness. However, this tone may be appreciated by people who haven’t read as many biographies, and certainly by someone who hasn’t read so many biographies about apocryphal lunatics like Andrew Jackson (that’s me, by the way).

So, in the end, the book was enjoyable enough, but I was left feeling like I’d not gotten information about some of the things I went in seeking. I believe I’m in the “middle” ground of people familiar enough with Washington to expect more than what Coe provided, but not familiar enough with Washington to need something other than the besmirched “thigh men” biographies to keep me entertained. Perhaps dismissing and insulting the “thigh men” biographies, which I happen to like, just set me in the wrong mood in the first place. Even in the sciences – where you’re supposed to be “above” such things – it’s well known you never insult another person’s work like that, much less make fun of it with a term like “thigh men”.

2/5 Discoball Snowcones

In Other News…

I also read Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life upon the suggestion of Peter Martuneac in his Genghis Khan review linked. Not only did Martuneac, who seems to enjoy history books similarly to myself, suggest Chernow’s work, but I’m pretty sure A Life was THE EPITOME “thigh man” book.

It was enormous, and it took me a long time to slog through (in part because I had so much real life work to do). I will say this, though: after having read Chernow’s work, I went ahead and took off a snowcone. A Life was more detailed, perhaps just due to the length, but it was also done respectfully and with attention to even Washington’s dirtier aspects. While I do admit Chernow wrongfully deified Washington a bit, especially during the first third of the book, Coe went too far in the other direction. In fact, she committed a cardinal sin of publishing: she derided works, and their authors, for no obvious reason other than to advertise her own work’s value. If her book could not stand on its own, it is still poorly served for having wasted some of its word count talking about how much the author dislikes Chernow and other “thigh men.” I found no obvious reason for her making fun of the other group of historians, so I hereby dock thee one snowcone!

If you want to read my review of Chernow’s work, you can find it on my Goodreads.

Next week:

I’m going to read about Cherokee Mythology from the James Mooney book! It promises to be an absolute ride through a very important aspect of American history that we often overlook. Stay tuned!

4 thoughts on “Book Review: You Never Forget Your First

  1. Peter Martuneac says:

    Thanks for the shout out 😀 This definitely doesn’t sound like my kind of biography, I’m not ashamed to say I prefer the gravitas of the “thigh men” kind of books. History itself is what entertains me, I don’t need jokes or brevity as a palate cleanser.

    I’m glad you brought up Chernow’s biography because what I liked most about that was it didn’t feel like he issued any kind of judgment on Washington one way or the other. Obviously he respects the immense pedestal of history on which Washington resides, but when it comes to Washington’s personal life and choices, Chernow ever only laid out the facts, such as we know. As if to say, “This is how it was, do with that as you will.”

    Especially the matter of slavery. I mentioned in my review that I so, so, SO wish Washington had been braver and more progressive on this issue because his record is sadly wanting. The “way it was back then” argument only goes so far, and while it does seem that Washington saw the light later in life, he seemed to lack the courage to actually do anything about it. Like he wanted to just ride out whatever few years he had left and hope the next generation would get rid of slavery.

    • H.R.R. Gorman says:

      I agree Chernow did a much better job giving a more distant view. Je laid out facts that would interest a modern audience and allow us to judge in both modern and past methods. Where I thought his attempt at dispassionate fact-telling failed was in the first third or so of the book. There were several little passages or one offs about “look at how super manly strong-buff good horse rider STRONG MANLY MAN” Washington was. Chernow did tie Washington’s physical strength and loss of it to other, more psychological elements later, but it was to a point that felt like hero worship in the front end.

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