(Republished on the occasion of the great man's 280th birthday)There has been a tsunami of books about George Washington in recent years, but none has captured a man whose birthday we once celebrated today with such wit and charm than Johnny One-Eye: A Tale of the American Revolution.
No matter that Jerome Charyn's account of Manhattan Island during the Revolutionary War, save for the broad historical overlay and the deeds of the familiar figures, is apocryphal from start to finish. It is a hoot. Or as the Brits might say, a rum tale.
Johnny Stocking, an orphan who was reared in a brothel and lost an eye during Benedict Arnold's raid on Quebec in 1775, is a man of two nations: He joins up with traitor-to-be Arnold as a secret agent for the British but is drawn back to the American side when he learns that Washington, who is tortured by his love for Gertrude Jennings, the brothel's madam and is or is not Johnny's mother, may be his father.
It seems at times that Johnny is the only person keeping the Revolutionary Army from losing its hold on the tumultuous island because of the machinations of the Howe brothers, Sir William of the British Army and Lord Admiral Richard of the Navy, while in between intrigues he pursues his true love, the exotic octoroon prostitute Clara from Dominica.
Gertrude and Clara also are spies with split loyalties, and much of Johnny One-Eye's fast moving plot concerns the secret services of both sides in the seven-year war for control of Manhattan, but Charyn keeps returning to Washington, whom he portrays as loving Clara, peas by the plateful and the card game vingt-et-un (blackjack).
Writes Charyn of the man whom the British referred to as the "farmer-in-chief":
"[In 1780] he was near fifty, and he'd had to cobble together an army for the past five and a half years, provide it with shoes, survive the cabals of congressmen and carping generals under his own command. 'T was Washington who fed the army, clothed it, fought the battles, ran his own stable of spies. Congress was bankrupt. Washington could not pay his soldiers. Some officers had already rebelled. But still he cobbled. His critics could not comprehend this. He was larger than their contradictions, relentless in his desire that the army not melt away, and with it the nation itself."
While some readers might have trouble sorting out the fact from the fiction, my only complaint is that at 448 pages, Johnny One-Eye is too long by perhaps a third.
No matter, it is a delight. And I bought my slightly used copy from Amazon for a mere buck and a half.
Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart