It’s President’s Day! It’s Washington’s birthday!
And what better way to celebrate than with Grant Wood’s whimsical, satirical painting, Parson Weems’ Fable.
Parson Weems, the largest figure in the painting, was the itinerant myth-maker who had recently been demoted from the status of George Washington’s first biographer to popular hack when the public “discovered” that such stories as the cherry tree incident had been invented by the preacher for his 1806 edition of Life of Washington the Great…
On one level, this painting is Wood’s salute to Weems, the storyteller. Perhaps the man duped a nation for over a hundred years, Wood seems to say, but it was still a good story, and it promoted the right ideas—truth, respect, and good family relations. On another level, Wood is amusing himself again with the mythological elements of the tale; he celebrates its storied qualities, that it is not true and so can be illustrated in an entirely whimsical way. Hence, the curtain is fringed with cherries, the house in the background is Wood’s own in Iowa City, the cherry tree is perfectly round, and no one has to guess at who the little boy is because a well-known head can be grafted onto the little body. Realism in no way has to be an issue. And on yet another level, Wood is questioning American worship of great men and the national creation of heros to fill out our galleries. The defiant little Washington has felled the tree in one blow; should we admire him for that act of greatness or disparage him for his unfilial attitude? Wood makes the point that this little boy will grow up to be the father of our country quite nicely; do his later exploits, Wood asks, justify a childhood mythology? [source]
Even though little-old Washington is phenomenally creepy, it’s worth reflecting on this painting during today’s holiday and on this blog more generally. Young Washington is a symbolic intersection of folklore and history, and we have all heard the stories since our own childhoods. What does it mean to think about great leaders as actual people, and how do we think about young presidents in more ways beyond how sexy Reagan was?