Top critical review
Smug and superficial
Reviewed in the United States on February 6, 2020
I can agree that far too many books about white men in history are written by white men today. Doris Kearns Goodwin, Brenda Wineapple, Amy Greenberg, among many others, have much to say about American history and past presidents. But I'm not sure what Alexis Coe contributes to the genre, other than pointing out the gender inequality and self-satisfyingly attacking white male Washington biographers for apparently getting it all wrong.
Her smug preface and introduction differ drastically in tone from the fairly straightforward body of the book itself. In a "humorous" way, she self-righteously calls out other Washington biographers - some of the preeminent writers and historians of our time - for their apparent presumptions and for supposedly perpetuating myths, as she deceivingly implies that they have written about Washington's fabled wooden teeth as fact.
And then she goes on to do exactly what she accuses others of doing - perpetuating myths (her "fun fact" that Washington named one of his dogs Cornwallis has been disputed as a 19th-century invention) and making unsupported presumptions (a letter to Washington from a colleague, asking, basically, "So, are you gettin' any?" leads her to conclude that Washington had likely engaged in premarital sex, including, possibly, "nonconsensual sex with an enslaved woman." Is that possible? Well, anything's possible. But likely? Who knows? Certainly not Coe, but it doesn't stop her from dangling it out there as a possibility, with zero evidence it actually occurred.)
Aside from the listicles interspersed throughout, the body of the book is generally a straightforward, Cliff's Notes-style biography, breezily coming in at about 200 pages of text. In longer, more thoughtful and thorough books on Washington, biographers struggle to understand and reconcile his views on slavery and wish that he could have taken a stronger stand against the practice. But Coe generally condemns him by viewing his actions through a 21st-century lens, which is easy to do in hindsight.
Ultimately, I'm not sure who this book is for - teens? Probably not, judging by the double entendre title and the inclusion of a crass, rated-R quote at the beginning of the book. Women? She seems to set it up that way, but there's nothing all that feminist about this book. I guess it's for people who otherwise wouldn't read a historical biography, but have enough of an attention span to get through 200 pages on George Washington, as long as there are listicles along the way to entertain and distract them. It's certainly not for those of us who actually enjoy a "900-page brick of a presidential biography" that she condemns as "Dad books" written by "Thigh Men" (don't ask).