Questions with the General: Why Washington?
On Friday, Allison, our new Programs and Development Manager, sat down with Living Biographer Carl Closs, who portrays George Washington regularly and does so for our Chadds Ford Days, to ask him a few questions and figure out, “Why Washington?”
I asked Carl to come in for an interview as part of a special section in our Chadds Ford Days newspaper pamphlet. While I was interested in delving into the mind of Washington, I was even more interested in the man behind the General and what motivated him to pick and portray an American legend.
Immediately you learn that Carl is a wealth of knowledge and not just about all things Washington. I asked him the usual questions, how long had he been involved with the Chadds Ford Historical Society (since the 1980s), how long had he been Washington at Chadds Ford Days (over 5 years), and when did he start portraying Washington (since 1997), but what was most fascinating to me was when we really started talking about Carl’s story.
Of course I had to ask him, “Why Washington?” and Carl modified my question by saying, “Well, why even pick the Revolutionary War period?” It all started for Carl with a thirst for learning about all kinds of history. Carl remarked that he was first drawn to Egyptian history, then the Greeks and the Romans. In his teenage years, Carl became a Civil War buff, but over time found that this era was too close to the modern one, that they were “too much like us.”
For Christmas one year, Carl received a book on the Revolutionary War from his uncle. He really liked the colorful uniforms of the period and from there went on to study the people involved. Carl notes that he was always a “studier of people”, more so than the events or battles that took place. He likens himself to Washington in that way because he didn’t enjoy talking about battles and strategy either. The people Carl began studying were the Founding Fathers and he started with Thomas Jefferson then moved on to John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. At first, Washington never appealed to him because Carl always thought he seemed “cold and aloof.” But, Carl wanted to know why the thinkers of the day really looked up to him, especially Jefferson and Adams who wrote about him positively long after his death.
Thus began Carl’s journey to discover who Washington was and unearth why Washington was so beloved and honored. Carl said many profound and thoughtful statements through our time chatting together about researching Washington, but this one statement was really something I connected with: “In order to find out what the Founding Fathers were like, you have to look at the Founding Mothers.” This statement I felt also seemed to sum up his approach to researching Washington. Yes, he read the usual books about him, but Carl thought it was just as important to read about the people Washington interacted with and the letters between them. He said because Washington wrote so much (over 40,000 letters – more than any other President!) it makes it easier to accurately portray him and know what he thought.
After talking about many more topics, we then ended our conversation discussing the challenges of portraying a figure like Washington. Carl took a long pause before answering this question and revealed that it is difficult to present to an audience of mixed ages, as he has to figure out what sort of information they will be coming to his presentation with. With adults sometimes he finds that they ask about battle strategy or the myths that are perpetuated about Washington, which aren’t the more interesting aspects of Washington. He really enjoys presenting in front of college students and especially children. Carl smiled as he remarked that “kids ask the best questions.” He went on to tell one of his favorite stories about a group of second graders in which a boy asked him, “What kinds of books did you read?” Carl remarked that this was a very good question and answered him as Washington by saying, “Mostly books on farming, but also ones on a wide range of topics. I have over 900 books in my library – and so much so that they no longer fit on my bookshelves! Martha, my wife, has a policy that if I want to get a new book I have to get rid of one first.” The kid thought about his reply a moment and then asked innocently, “Don’t you have a Kindle?” Carl gently answered that he did not think he had that book in his library. The young boy, not understanding the cultural differences, went on to explain that the Kindle wasn’t one book, but instead something you read many books on. Carl, knowing full well what he meant but wanting to educate the young boy, thoughtfully replied, “Oh, so it’s a book stand!” You can figure out how the conversation continued from there, but I imagine the young boy left with a general understanding of the time period, the lack of electronic devices, and an idea of the kind of individual Washington was based on Carl’s thoughtful portrayal of him.
If you are looking for something to do during Chadds Ford Days this September 12th-13th, I strongly recommend you take the time to witness his presentations at 2:30 pm on both Saturday and Sunday. Carl’s thoughtful and well-researched approach to portraying Washington is not to be missed!
To learn more about Living Biographer Carl Closs, please visit his website: http://www.gwashington.net/