10/22/2012 12:43 pm ET Updated Dec 22, 2012

USA: A Meme-oir, Part One

The first in a series celebrating our nation's classic memes.

At the dawn of U.S. history, little George Washington cut down a cherry tree and refused to lie about it. Except he didn't.

Actually, very little is known about the father of our country, because he did his best to avoid generating memes. We know he was born in 1732, so it would have been perhaps 1740 or so when he accomplished the feat of honesty for which he is known. Like many memes, however, the tale is a complete media fabrication that fulfilled a public need. Unlike most memes, however, this one has stood the test of time. The week in which I am writing this, for instance, we have enjoyed not one but two memes:

  • Binders full of women: in which Mitt Romney conjures up a foolish and slightly salacious image that is demeaning to women, revealing of his inner landscape, and hilarious;
  • Pending Larry: Google entrusts its quarterly earnings release to printer R. R. Donnelly and Company, which releases it prematurely, before it has a chance to insert the thoughts of its chief executive, Larry Page. In the place where that quote will go is a simple placeholder, "Pending Larry quote." The vicious and predatory Internet community immediately building a bonfire and dances ecstatically around it, celebrating this gaffe, transforming the screwup into an instant meme, to the relief, I am sure, of Mitt Romney.

Here is the origin of the meme, according to historian and poet Christopher George, who has a very nice blog. "Here's the lowdown on Weems and the tale about wee George and the cherry tree from The Moral Washington: Construction of a Legend (1800-1920s) by Adriana Rissetto," he writes:

"The story of Washington and the Cherry Tree, a tale which still lingers through probably every grammar school in the U.S., was invented by a parson named Mason Locke Weems in a biography of Washington published directly after his death. Saturated with tales of Washington's selflessness and honesty, A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits, of General George Washington(1800) and The Life of George Washington, with Curious Anecdotes Laudable to Himself and Exemplary to his Countrymen (1806) supplied the American people with flattering (and often rhyming) renditions of the events that shaped their hero. Weems imagined everything from Washington's childhood transgression and repentence to his apotheosis when 'at the sight of him, even those blessed spirits seem[ed] to feel new raptures' (Weems, 60). According to historian Karal Ann Marling, Weems was struggling to 'flesh out a believable and interesting figure. . . to humanize Washington' who had been painted as 'cold and colorless' in an earlier, poorly-selling biography. While it is likely that some readers of the time questioned the authenticity of the tales, Weems' portraits soared in popularity in the early 1800s."

Coming soon: More memes from our nation's glorious history.

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