Leader by Destiny Essay - Critical Context

Jeanette Eaton

Critical Context

Eaton’s biography was named a Newbery Medal Honor Book in 1939. When the work appeared in 1938, it represented a highly readable yet detailed account of Washington’s life, using all the papers, letters, journals, and memoirs available to her. Her lively dramatic style brought Washington to life as a flesh-and-blood character, an imperfect man of his class and time, as she notes on several occasions. She makes little of the issue of slavery, for example, even resorting to a dialogue sentence from his personal servant, Sam—“De post come, Marse Washington!”—near the end of the story. One of Washington’s final actions before dying is to motion this same servant to be seated, implying that he had stood by Washington’s bed through the night.

Eaton’s ability to dramatize believably the smallest scenes so that they create a feeling for the individual and the times lends credibility to her narrative and stimulates the imaginations of her readers. That Washington is described as fond of children, devoting inordinate time to caring for his wife’s children by her former marriage and adopting his own grandchildren when his stepson dies, adds to the appeal that this American political figure makes to younger readers. Even the extended discussion of his infatuation with Sally Fairfax serves to show that he was only a shy young man who responded to the sensitive understanding that she seemed to offer him, along with direct help to his career and encouragement to fulfill his destiny.

Eaton’s biography takes its place among the balanced treatments of historical figures, which are careful about details, quote liberally from primary sources, and try to get behind the public figure to the private individual. Her account brings Washington down to earth and adds to his deserved respect.