Flaneur’s Gallery: Parson Weems’ Fable

Grant Wood. Parson Weems’ Fable. 1939. Amon Carter Museum, Forth Worth.

When I was five years old, before I learned to read, I laid claim to a book in the family library called Pictorial History of American Presidents. It covered the course from George to  Ike, who still held office then, and it was loaded with black and white reproductions of historic images and political cartoons. It’s where I first encountered this sardonic painting by Grant Wood. My attention favored the hatchet, of course. Then there was the marvel of George’s pompous head (like the picture on a dollar bill) planted atop a child’s body. What was that about?

I have the book in hand this morning, so spine-cracked and well-thumbed  it falls open effortlessly to the very same page I lingered over  as a proto-reader. Call it my first foray into postmodern criticism of visual rhetoric. I asked my mom what it meant, and she recited the verities. Young George Washington was playing with a hatchet he never should have touched. He got carried away and senselessly chopped down a cherry tree in the front yard. When his dad found out he got mad an ddemanded to know who’d done it. George answered forthrightly, ‘Father, I cannot tell a lie. I did.’

I knew there was more going on in the picture than my mom would explain. She avoided altogether the surrealism of a grown-up’s head grafted on a kid’s body. And who was the smug guy pulling back the curtain? She didn’t know. Years later I would learn that he was Parson Weems, first biographer of the Father of Our Country. The Parson reminded me then of James Boswell’s scathing description of Thomas Gray, poet of Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard: “He looked as if he’d befouled his small clothes, and only he knew it.” Parson Weems invented the story about George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. Call it an embellishment, a convenient truth, the fable is forever enshrined now in civil mythology. Hatchets in hand, rough-hewn but square-cut, American political leaders have been ostentatiously honest ever since.

Originally posted 091408.

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2 Responses to Flaneur’s Gallery: Parson Weems’ Fable

  1. Mark Willis says:

    While updating the image of Parson Weems’ Fable to a larger format, I added this description by Steven Biel in the alt tag :

    Parson Weems, imitating Charles Willson Peale’s pose in The Artist in His Museum (1822), opens a red velvet curtain on the legendary scene: Augustine Washington, elegant in crimson coat, white ruffle, tan breeches, silver-buckled pumps, and green tricornered hat, grasps in his right hand the slim trunk of the bent cherry tree. A row of cherries dangles from the perfectly rounded treetop, mirroring the very cherry-like fringe of the Parson’s curtain. Augustine’s outstretched left palm and furrowed brow signal a serious inquiry. His son George, boyish in stature and dress—coatless, with sky-blue breeches and petite buckled pumps—is manly in his expression. In fact, his white-wigged head is that of Gilbert Stuart’s portrait and the dollar bill. He points with his right hand to the hatchet in his left. Wood chips lie in the circle of soil at the base of the tree, its lower trunk smoothly incised and poised to split off. In the background, a well-dressed slave couple harvests the fruit of a second tree.

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