Burn on

My man Les Standiford, novelist and popular historian par excellence, has a new book coming out called Washington Burning: How a Frenchman’s Vision of Our Nation’s Capital Survived Congress, the Founding Fathers, and the Invading British Army.

Sound interesting? Let Les describe it for you:

While there have been a number of books dealing with the founding of Washington in the 1790’s, as well as a number detailing the dramatic story of its burning by the British during the War of 1812, I had not read any that connected the two threads in any substantial way when the idea began to form in my mind. Until the British thought enough of Washington D.C. to reduce its public buildings to rubble in 1814, the new capital was a source of great friction in our new nation–Northern interests found it too “Southern,” and Southerners found it not “Southern” enough. But that action by the British, meant to frighten an ill-prepared United States military into capitulation, had the opposite effect of what was intended. Americans were outraged, not intimidated–and when the British moved on from Washington to a true military target at Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, they were soundly defeated and the tide of the war changed. Washington D.C. was transformed from a locus of division to a symbol of pride and unity, and in essence, it was the desire to avenge the destruction of our “national city” that led to the final break from Great Britain.

In one way, the city itself is the “main character” of this book, though the attempts of George Washington, and Pierre L’Enfant and others to see a new capital rise from a wilderness (despite the heated opposition of Thomas Jefferson, for one) form the human story that came to fascinate me. L’Enfant was a brilliant man, but an eccentric and difficult one as well, and he was utterly consumed with the correctness of his “Grand Plan.” In essence, he was a poet, and though W.H. Auden has suggested that “poetry makes nothing happen,” L’Enfant made Washington happen, and exactly as he sketched it out on a couple of taped-together scraps of paper more than 200 years ago.

Les also has a new blog called Grand Standiford Station. His previous narrative histories, Last Train to Paradise and Meet You in Hell, were part of my relief reading when I was in the midst of writing The Last Three Miles and wanted something diverting that would keep my head properly calibrated to the task at hand. This led me to contact him for blurbage, which he graciously provided. There’s always a spot for Les Stdnaiford on my blogroll, and if he ever comes by this way I’ll gladly stand him a drink or two or three or . . . well, let’s just say I’ll make it worth his while.

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